The global ‘plastic flood’ has reached the Arctic, scientists warn, with microplastic pollution in the polar region now as bad as anywhere else on Earth.
A new study suggests that debris from fabrics, personal care products, packaging and other everyday materials is blighting the pristine wilderness, after being carried north to the Arctic Ocean by waves, winds and rivers.
Large quantities of microplastic can now be found in the water, on the seafloor, remote beaches, in rivers, and even in ice and snow.
The plastic is not only a burden for ecosystems but could also worsen climate change, according to an international review study released by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.
The global ‘plastic flood’ has reached the Arctic, scientists warn, with microplastic pollution in the polar region now as bad as anywhere else on Earth. Experts are pictured sampling sea ice
Large quantities of microplastic can now be found in the water, on the seafloor, remote beaches, in rivers, and even in ice and snow. The Arctic Ocean receives more than 10 per cent of water discharge from rivers across the world, which carry plastic into the ocean (pictured)
Tiny pieces of plastic act to darken snow covered surfaces in places like the Arctic and lead to more sun light being absorbed and the ice and snow melting (the process is shown above)
WE INHALE UP TO 7,000 PARTICLES EVERY DAY, SHOCK NEW STUDY REVEALS
Microplastic particles are now so rife that we breathe in up to 7,000 every day, shocking research shows.
The total was 100 times higher than expected – posing a potential health threat that could rank alongside asbestos or tobacco, experts said.
The study used highly sensitive equipment to count tiny particles less than 10 microns in size – just a tenth of the width of a human hair.
The highest concentration was in the room of an eight-year-old girl because her bedding, carpet and soft toys were all made from synthetic materials.
Read more: We inhale up to 7,000 particles per day, study reveals
Lead author Dr Melanie Bergmann said: ‘The Arctic is still assumed to be a largely untouched wilderness.
‘In our review, which we jointly conducted with colleagues from Norway, Canada and the Netherlands, we show this perception no longer reflects the reality.
‘Our northernmost ecosystems are already particularly hard hit by climate change. This is now exacerbated by plastic pollution.
‘And our own research has shown the pollution continues to worsen.’
The research involved pouring over numerous studies to provide an overview of the latest findings.
Today, between 19 and 23 million metric tonnes of plastic litter end up in the waters of the world every year — equivalent to two truckloads per minute.
It accumulates in the oceans and gradually breaks down into ever smaller pieces, even entering the human bloodstream through the seafood we eat.
Virtually all marine organisms studied – from plankton to sperm whales – consume plastic by mistake, while global production is expected to double by 2045.
It is all-pervasive, stretching from the deepest ocean trenches to the tropics — and even Mount Everest.
Microplastics have been shown to harm wildlife but the impact on people is not known, though they do damage human cells in the laboratory.
Fibres from acrylic and polyester clothes are shed in huge numbers during washing, with an estimated 68 million loads done in the UK every week.
The latest analysis paints the grimmest picture to date. The sparsely populated Arctic shows a similar level of pollution as dense towns and cities around the globe.
This includes virtually all habitats — from beaches through layers of the water column to the seabed.
The Atlantic, the North Sea and the North Pacific over the Bering Strait were identified as major sources of the plastic pollution
The Arctic Ocean makes up only one per cent of the total volume of the world’s seas but receives more than 10 per cent of water discharge from rivers, which carry plastic into the ocean.
Some of the most important local sources of pollution are municipal waste and wastewater from Arctic communities, while ships – and in particular, fishing vessels – also pose a serious problem.
Whether intentionally dumped or lost by accident, nets and ropes account for a large share of the plastic in the European sector of the Arctic.
The graphic above shows the main pathways of pollution transport to the Arctic, including via atmospheric and aquatic circulation systems
This graphic shows the plastic pollution recorded in different Arctic ecosystem compartments
Virtually all marine organisms studied – from plankton to sperm whales – consume plastic by mistake, while global production is expected to double by 2045
Dr Bergmann said: ‘Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of the plastic on marine organisms in the Arctic.
‘But there is evidence that the consequences there are similar to those in better-studied regions.
‘In the Arctic, too, many animals – polar bears, seals, reindeer and seabirds – become entangled in plastic and die.
‘In the Arctic, too, unintentionally ingested microplastic likely leads to reduced growth and reproduction, to physiological stress and inflammations in the tissues of marine animals, and even runs in the blood of humans.’
The available data on potential feedback effects between plastic debris and climate change is particularly thin.
‘Here, there is an urgent need for further research,’ said Dr Bergmann.
‘Initial studies indicate trapped microplastic changes the characteristics of sea ice and snow.’
Dark particles, for instance, could mean the ice absorbs more sunlight and therefore melts more rapidly. Known as the ‘albedo affect’, this can intensify global warming.
Moreover, plastic particles in the atmosphere provide condensation for clouds and rain, which could influence the weather and even climate.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 0.2 of an inch (5mm) in diameter — some so small that they’re not even visible to the naked eye (file photo)
These tiny pieces of plastic act to darken snow covered surfaces in places like the Arctic and lead to more sun light being absorbed and the ice and snow melting
Throughout their lifecycle, plastics are currently responsible for 4.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Arctic is the planet’s ‘air conditioner’ – regulating temperatures and circulating ocean currents – but it is warming much faster than the rest of the world, with parts melting at an alarming rate.
Dr Bergmann said: ‘Our review shows the levels of plastic pollution in the Arctic match those of other regions around the world.
‘This concurs with model simulations that predict an additional accumulation zone in the Arctic. But the consequences might be even more serious.
‘As climate change progresses, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.
‘Consequently, the plastic flood is hitting ecosystems that are already seriously strained.’
Dr Bergmann welcomed the resolution for a global plastic treaty, passed at the UN Environment Assembly in February, as an important first step.
Microplastics enter the waterways through a variety of means and finish suspended in the liquid. From the water, they can be ingested by seafood or absorbed by plants to end up in our food
‘In the course of the negotiations over the next two years, effective, legally binding measures must be adopted including reduction targets in plastic production,’ she added.
‘In this regard, the European countries including Germany must cut their plastic output, just as the rich Arctic States have to reduce pollution from local sources and improve the often virtually non-existent waste and wastewater management in their communities.
‘In addition, more regulation and controls are called for — with regard to plastic debris from international shipping, and fisheries.’
The study adds to evidence the world’s smallest ocean – spanning 6.1 million square miles – is critical in the climate change crisis.
It encircles the Arctic and flows beneath it. Most is covered by ice throughout the year but that is starting to change as temperatures climb.
The study has been published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.
WHAT CAN MICROPLASTICS DO TO THE HUMAN BODY IF THEY END UP IN OUR FOOD SUPPLY?
According to an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, our understanding of the potential human health effects from exposure to microplastics ‘constitutes major knowledge gaps.’
Humans can be exposed to plastic particles via consumption of seafood and terrestrial food products, drinking water and via the air.
However, the level of human exposure, chronic toxic effect concentrations and underlying mechanisms by which microplastics elicit effects are still not well understood enough in order to make a full assessment of the risks to humans.
According to Rachel Adams, a senior lecturer in Biomedical Science at Cardiff Metropolitan University, ingesting microplastics could cause a number of potentially harmful effects, such as:
- Inflammation: when inflammation occurs, the body’s white blood cells and the substances they produce protect us from infection. This normally protective immune system can cause damage to tissues.
- An immune response to anything recognised as ‘foreign’ to the body: immune responses such as these can cause damage to the body.
- Becoming carriers for other toxins that enter the body: microplastics generally repel water and will bind to toxins that don’t dissolve, so microplastics can bind to compounds containing toxic metals such as mercury, and organic pollutants such as some pesticides and chemicals called dioxins, which are known to causes cancer, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. If these microplastics enter the body, toxins can accumulate in fatty tissues.