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Microplastics pollution found in fresh-fallen Sierra snow and Lake Tahoe

Microplastics pollution found in fresh-fallen Sierra snow
Microplastics pollution found in fresh-fallen Sierra snow 03:28

SAN FRANCISCO -- Scientists are becoming alarmed by the growing amount of tiny particles of plastic, called microplastics, in the world's oceans. Now a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno has discovered evidence that the plastic pollution problem may be more widespread than previously believed.

For the past two years, Dr. Monica Arienzo, an associate professor for the Desert Research Institute in Reno has tested High Sierra snow at several locations and has found something that shouldn't be there: tiny plastic fibers in the new-fallen snow.

Snow Microplastics Pollution
Dr. Monica Arienzo, an associate professor for the Desert Research Institute in Reno tests Sierra snow for microplastic fibers. Desert Research Institute

"What we've found so far is that some of our sites do have microplastics in them. We've identified nylon and rayon, so far," Dr. Arienzo said.  "We still have a lot of work to do to compare between these sites and then compare from year to year."

It's not the only place where plastic seems out of place. Environmental researchers have also collected microplastic fibers like those in synthetic fabrics in the pristine waters and snow near the poles.

"There's a piece of microplastic," said Greenpeace senior scientist Dr. David Santillo as he peered into a microscope. "It's a piece of polyester floating out there in Antarctic waters. We don't know what the biological consequences are at the moment. What we do know is that these microplastics are there, that exposure is occurring and, really, it shouldn't be occurring. This is part of a man-made problem that has now gone global."

The tiny fibers showing up in snow and rain is part of a growing body of evidence that the consequences of man's careless use of plastic are being carried to even the most remote corners of the world.  

"It's likely the mechanism that these microplastics are also turning up in the high Arctic and the Antarctic because these are so tiny that they can be carried in long-range atmospheric transport through the air," said Dr. Lisa Erdle.  As director of science at the 5 Gyres Institute, she has helped study plastic pollution in the San Francisco Bay and she said it appears the problem is worsening.

"We did a study just published last week where we looked at 40 years of microplastics in the world's oceans and, from 2005, we see a rapid rise in the amount of plastic that's in the oceans," Dr. Erdle said. "And this is a similar trend in habitats and wildlife around the world."

The evidence of its existence is clear but there are still questions about how much, if at all, such small fibers may affect humans or other living creatures. Dr. Arienzo says finding plastic in unlikely places like the High Sierra has become so common, researchers now expect to find it.

"We actually wrote our first proposal to look at microplastics in Lake Tahoe and we were told by a lot of people we wouldn't find any.  And pretty much everywhere I've looked in Tahoe, I have found microplastics," she said.

Last year, California became the first government in the world to require water agencies to test for microplastics. Dealing with a problem this extensive can feel a bit hopeless but scientists say consumers can do a better job of capturing plastic before it gets into the environment.

And, of course, it wouldn't hurt to simply create less of it.

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