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Researchers find decades-old nanoplastics in ice from Earth’s poles

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An international team of scientists identified significant quantities of nanoscale plastic particles in decades-old ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica as part of a new study that suggests plastic pollution is more widespread than previously thought.

In the first find of its kind at both of the Earth’s poles, researchers from the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, the University of Copenhagen and the Université Libre de Bruxelles were able to obtain the samples from drilling 14-metre-deep ice cores from Greenland and sea ice cores from Antarctica.

The study used new techniques to measure the nanoplastics, and was able to find plastic pollution dating as far back as the 1960s, including polyethylene, tire dust, PET, polystyrene, PVC and polypropylene.

Nanoplastics have been shown to have various adverse effects on organisms.

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Despite polar ice being perceived as pristine and untouched, the researchers found nanoplastics mass concentrations were on average 13.2 nanograms per millilitre for Greenland and 52.3 nanograms per millilitre for sea ice from Antarctica.

“In the Greenland core, we see nanoplastics pollution happening all the way from the 1960s,” explained Dr. Dušan Materić of the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, in a statement. “So organisms in that region, and likely all over the world, have been exposed to it for quite some time now,” he added.

Polyethylene, or PE, a plastic used in disposable bags and food containers, housewares, pipes and agricultural foils, was the dominant plastics type in Greenland and contributed 49% to the total nanoplastics mass. It was also the most prevalent contaminant in Antarctica, accounting for 50% of the overall mass. In the Greenland ice core, the team also found significant amounts of nanoparticles originating from vehicle tire wear.

Microplastics have been found in Arctic ice before; however, nanoparticles have not. The research team, in fact, needed to develop new detection methods to analyze the much smaller nanoparticles.

“The transport pathways of nanoplastics that reached these remote North and South polar locations likely involve a combination of complex processes, including both atmospheric and marine transport, (re)emission, deposition and ice incorporation,” the study states.

The team drilled with the U.S. Ice Drilling and Design Operations hand auger with a 76-mm diameter.

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