We’re surrounded by plastic in our everyday lives, yet one place we don’t expect it to be is in our snow.
But a new study has indicated that microscopic particles of plastic are infiltrating every area of our existence – and this including the white stuff we love to play in, come winter.
Scientists have warned that humans may be inhaling much more plastic than we think after finding high levels of microplastic pollution in snow from the Arctic to the Alps.
Researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science Advances, conducted analysis on snow samples from Helgoland, Bavaria, Bremen, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic.
Microplastics were found in high concentrations in snow at all of the sites, even in remote areas of the Arctic, on the island of Svalbard, and in snow on drifting ice floes.
The minute particles are transported by the atmosphere and then washed out of the air, especially by snow, said scientists, who added that their hypothesis is supported by past research conducted on grains of pollen.
Dr Melanie Bergmann, from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany, said: ‘It’s readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.’
The researchers added that a massive portion of the microplastic in Europe, and even more in the Arctic, comes from the atmosphere and snow.
Dr Bergmann said: ‘This additional transport route could also explain the high amounts of microplastic that we’ve found in the Arctic sea ice and the deep sea in previous studies.
‘To date there are virtually no studies investigating the extent to which human beings are subject to microplastic contamination.’
She concluded that most research has looked at how animals or human beings absorb microplastic from what they eat, but ‘once we’ve determined that large quantities of microplastic can also be transported by the air, it naturally raises the question as to whether and how much plastic we’re inhaling.
‘Older findings from medical research offer promising points of departure for work in this direction.’
Researchers on the study melted the snow and filtered it before studying the trapped residue with an infrared microscope.
Different wavelengths of the infrared light were absorbed and reflected, depending on the type of plastic.
The samples with the highest concentration were taken from near a rural road in Bavaria and measured 154,000 particles per litre.
Scientists said the snow in the Arctic had up to 14,400 particles per litre.
However, the type of plastic identified varied between different sites, with nitrile rubber, acrylates and paint found in the Arctic and various types of rubber discovered in Bavaria.
Researchers say the microplastic concentrations found were much higher than those in other studies, using dust deposits as an example.
One of the study authors, Dr Gunnar Gerdts, said this could be down to two reasons, stating: ‘First of all, snow is extremely efficient when it comes to washing microplastic out of the atmosphere.
‘Secondly, it could be due to the infrared spectroscopy we used, which allowed us to detect even the smallest particles – down to a size of only 11 micrometres.’