Microplastics found in Antarctic snowfall for the first time, containing 13 plastic components

  • 2022-06-24
In recent years, scientists have discovered microplastic pollution near the summit of Mount Everest and in the world's deepest trench, the Mariana Trench. Now, the presence of these tiny polymers has also been reported on the frozen continent at the southern tip of the world.

Microplastics are polymer particles less than 5 mm in diameter but larger than 1 micron. Microplastics are ubiquitous in most parts of the world, in the air we breathe and in the dust that accumulates on our floors.

The researchers collected snow samples from 19 different locations in the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found that each sample contained an average of 29 particles. Most of the particles came from a type of plastic found in clothing and water bottles.

"The incredible discovery of microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution, even in the world," Alex Ives, one of the study's lead authors, said in a news release. Even in the most remote areas of the world."

The ubiquity of microplastics has drawn increasing attention from researchers as microplastics are associated with potentially irreversible negative environmental impacts and can impact human health. Early research suggests that concentrated human exposure to microplastics may cause inflammatory responses and cellular damage, but scientists say more research is still needed to understand the risks microplastics may pose.

To detect microplastics, researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand analyzed samples collected from 13 remote sites on Ross Island and six sites close to the research station.

With multiple steps taken to ensure the samples were not contaminated, the researchers' analysis found an average of 29 individual plastic particles in each of the 19 melted snow samples. In total, the samples included 13 different types of plastic. Samples from remote locations farther from Antarctica's research base contained fewer plastic particles.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most common plastic. This plastic is commonly found in water bottles and synthetic clothing, and was found in about 79 percent of the samples.

Atmospheric models suggest that some of the plastic found may have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to the world's southernmost continent, possibly from New Zealand or the southernmost regions of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina.

In addition, the researchers said in the study, the plastic was more likely to come from clothing, building materials or marking signs at Scott Base and McMurdo Station, which are research stations on Ross Island.

Research suggests that microplastics could pose a risk to Antarctica's food chain. Previous research has shown that microplastics may disrupt biological processes in zooplankton and affect Antarctic krill, which form the basis of the continental food chain. At the same time, the researchers also said that the presence of microplastics in penguin diets may also put penguins at risk.

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