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Nanoplastics are ubiquitous in rural and isolated surface waterways

One of the sample locations in Sweden. Credit: Mike Peacock

Over the past several decades, small plastic particles have traveled by air to remote locations on Earth. This is the alarming conclusion reached by experts from the University of Utrecht and other institutes, as reported in Environmental Research Letters. The investigation into the role that nanoplastics play in nature is only beginning.

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Nanoplastics are so little that they are challenging to measure. However, due of their diminutive size, they are extremely destructive to living beings. Scientist Duan Materi of the Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research (IMAU) at Utrecht University explains, “Nanoplastics can permeate living cells, thereby disrupting fundamental, essential processes.” We only recently learned how to accurately test nanoplastics in the environment, so this is likely already occurring.

Sweden and Siberia waters

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This measurement method was published two years ago, and Materi’s study team utilized it to detect nanoplastics in snow from the Alps and ice from both polar regions. These particles were likely transported there by the wind. Now, the researchers are focusing on distant sites in Northern Europe, specifically 11 small lakes and streams in Sweden and 12 in Siberia. Plastics with a thickness of approximately one hundredth of a hair must have been delivered by air there as well.

PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic residues amounted to an average of 563 micrograms (0.56 milligrams) per liter in Sweden’s small waterways (polyethylene terephthalate). In Siberia, the average amount of nanoplastics per liter of water was 51 micrograms (0.05 milligrams). In addition, only two varieties existed: PVC and PS (polystyrene). According to Materi, the presence of nanoplastics in streams indicates that “nanoplastics pollution is not a new phenomenon affecting only surface water.”

According to Materi and his co-authors, the origins of these particles are both local and distant. “All of Western Europe could be the source of pollution for Sweden. A few dozen kilometers away, for instance, are a huge industry and a waste treatment facility. However, there are no adjacent businesses or cities in Siberia. Large wind currents are likely to transport and disperse nanoplastics across broad distances. This information gap is precisely why additional study is required in this sector.”

Since 2019, the UU has had access to sophisticated equipment that can detect evidence of plastics (such as nanoplastics) in environmental samples. The Materi “In this newly developed process based on mass spectrometry, we slowly heat our samples, causing the particles of various predetermined sizes to evaporate. The mass spectrometer detects the scents of these fractions, and sophisticated algorithms confirm the nature and mass of the nanoplastics.”

Influence of minute particles on live organisms

In addition to their discoveries about the pervasive occurrence of nanoplastics, the researchers are developing their unique scientific methodology. “This technique,” explains Materi, “which we refer to as Thermal Desorption—Proton Transfer Reaction—Mass Spectroscopy, allows us and other researchers around the world to establish how far nanoplastics have already spread. When this information is accessible, toxicological implications and connections will be able to be made regarding the influence of the smallest plastic particles on species and ecosystems.”

Further information: Dušan Materić et al, Presence of nanoplastics in rural and remote surface waters, Environmental Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac68f7

Journal information: Environmental Research Letters

Source: Utrecht University Faculty of Science

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