(CN) – Scientists discovered just how far reaching human pollution has become when they discovered an “enormous” amount of microplastics in the Arctic snow, according to new research released Wednesday.
The paper, published in the journal Science Advances, found that tiny particles of plastic are being lifted through the atmosphere and carried to parts of the planet once thought too remote to be signficantly polluted by human trash.
“While we did expect to find microplastics, the enormous concentrations surprised us,” said Melanie Bergmann, co-author at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Scientists collected snow from parts of the Arctic, the Swiss Alps, Germany and the island of Heligoland in order to detect the levels of microplastics. The fine particulate fragments, less than 5 millimeters, are known to become airborne and can spread much like pollen.
“We expected to find some contamination but to find this many microplastics was a real shock,” Bergmann said in an interview with BBC News. “It’s readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.”
Although scientists are concerned about what effects microplastics may have on wildlife and humans, there’s no determination of what those effects might be.
“We don’t know if the plastics will be harmful to human health or not. But we need to take much better care of the way we’re treating our environment,” Bergmann said.
The study found that Arctic snow pulled from an ice floe in the Fram Strait was the third-highest polluted sample out of all the sites they tested at 14,000 particles per liter. The highest concentration of microplastics were discovered in the Bavarian Alps at 150,000 particles per liter.
Bergmann said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact source of all the pollution.
“We have to ask – do we need so much plastic packaging? Do we need all the polymers in the paints we use? Can we come up with differently designed car tyres? These are important issues,” Bergmann told BBC News.
The study authors suggest microplastics should be monitored more closely to determine its effects on people.
“We really need to know what effects microplastics have on humans, especially if inhaled with the air that we breathe,” Bergmann said.