Nanoplastics are now polluting the North and South Poles, scientists have found for the first time.
Particles are described as those produced unintentionally during the manufacture of plastic items and as they break down. They are microscopic in size, ranging from 1 to 1,000 nanometers.
Scientists from Utrecht University in the Netherlands reported on Thursday that decades-old ice in the North and South Pole regions contained significant amounts of nanoscale plastic particles.
Ice cores 14 meters deep, from Greenland and Antarctica, revealed several types of nanoplastics, including tire particles.
While there were several types of nanoplastics, the most important was polyethylene, accounting for more than half of the particles. Polyethylene is commonly used in packaging films, plastic shopping bags, bottles, toys and household items.
The amount of nanoplastics also seemed to differ between the northern and southern ice core samples, being more present at the south pole.
Nanoplastics as well as microplastics – which measure 5 mm in diameter or less – are among the most prevalent human-made pollutants in marine ecosystems and pose a toxic threat to species in relatively untouched and pristine polar regions.
A report released earlier this week by the International Environmental Investigation Agency said the global threat of plastic pollution nearly equates to the climate crisis.
The overproduction of plastics now poses a major threat to the planet’s fundamental ability to maintain a habitable environment, he warned, calling for a new United Nations treaty to prompt better responses to the crisis.
Citing previous studies, the report warned that the amount of virgin plastic in the ocean is expected to triple by 2040.
The new nanoplastic research was conducted by a team of scientists from Utrecht University, the University of Copenhagen and the Free University of Brussels.
The researchers reported that while previous studies had suggested that nanoplastics were able to travel great distances through wind and water currents, they were still surprised to find substantial amounts in their samples.
And although the team was the first to identify nanoplastics in polar ice, pollution has been increasing since the 1960s.
“We now know that nanoplastics are transported to these corners of the Earth in these quantities. This indicates that nanoplastics really are a bigger pollution problem than we thought,” said Dušan Materić, lead author of the study.
He added: “So organisms in this region, and probably around the world, have been exposed to it for some time now.”
His team had previously identified nanoplastic particles in samples from the Alps.