Plastic snow? Study finds trillions of plastic particles fall on the Swiss Alps every year

DÜBENDORF, Switzerland — For those who love to catch the fresh falling snow on their tongues, beware, that might actually be plastic falling from the sky! Researchers from Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands estimate that close to 43 trillion miniature plastic particles land in Switzerland every year.

The research focused on determining just how much plastic is falling back to Earth from the atmosphere, with study authors concluding certain plastic nanoparticles travel over 1,200 miles through the air on their way to the ground.

While study authors are still uncertain about exact numbers, they estimate that as much as 3,000 tons of nano-plastics cover Switzerland annually. This includes the Swiss Alps but also extends to the small nation’s urban lowlands.

This work is breaking major new scientific ground. Research thus far on nano-plastics in the air has been very limited. To date, the new study is the most comprehensive project focusing on plastic air pollution. To count plastic particles, study authors created a new chemical method capable of determining the collected sample contamination with a mass spectrometer.

Researchers focused on a small region located at an altitude of 3,106 meters, situated at the tip of the mountain “Hoher Sonnenblick” in the “Hohe Tauern” National Park in Austria. An observatory has operated at that location since 1886.

Each morning, regardless of daily weather conditions, researchers collected a portion of the top layer of snow and carefully stored it. The team traced each tiny particle’s origin thanks to European wind and weather data. This process led to the finding that the largest numbers of nanoparticles entering the atmosphere come from densely populated and urban areas. Roughly 30 percent of these nano-plastic particles found on the mountain top come from just 124 miles away, an area consisting of mostly urban regions.

Plastic pollution could have serious health implications

Cities aren’t the only source of plastic in the air, however. The study also reports plastics from the oceans make their way into the air via the spray of waves. Just about 10 percent of measured particles landing on the mountain appear to come from winds and weather taking place in the Atlantic Ocean – some 1,240 miles away.

It’s hard to fathom, but current estimates show humans have already produced 8,300 million tons of plastic. Even worse, about 60 percent of all that plastic is now nothing more than useless garbage polluting the planet. Over time, all of that plastic will slowly but surely break down from macro-plastics to micro-plastics, and then eventually nano-plastics.

It’s important to understand, however, that the plastic problem doesn’t just include discarded or thrown out goods. Simply handling everyday plastic products such as packaging and clothing releases nano-plastics into the environment. It may be microscopic and virtually unnoticeable, but it is indeed occurring. Scientists compare this phenomenon to various gases in the air.

Studies show that nanoparticles, unlike micro-particles, are likely capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier after people inhale them into their lungs. This means it’s quite likely plastic nanoparticles eventually circulate through the bloodstream. As of now, it is unknown exactly what type of health impact this has on humans.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

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