Editorial

Warning in those microplastic particles in the Arctic

Friday, August 16, 2019

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One scientist described it as “a punch in the gut”. It may not have felt like that to us here in the Caribbean, but the detection of minute microplastic particles in the Arctic and the Alps, reported this week, should have jolted us enough to keep our eyes focussed on what is happening to the environment around us.

The discovery was highlighted in a study by scientists at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute and Switzerland's Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.

Ms Melanie Bergmann, lead author of the study, and her colleagues had been studying plastics on the Arctic sea floor since 2002. It is reported that over the past decade they noticed huge increases in the amount they were seeing, including a tenfold rise at one station.

That resulted in them looking for microplastics in the Arctic water column, and finding copious amounts everywhere they looked.

We are told that, in deep sea sediments, the scientists found about 6,000 particles in every 2.2 pounds of mud. Sea ice was even more laden — as much as 12,000 particles per 34 ounces of melted ice, Ms Bergmann said.

Other researchers found that Arctic surface waters had the highest microplastics concentrations of all the world's oceans. They have also determined that microplastic particles can be transported tremendous distances through the atmosphere.

“It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastics in the snow comes from the air,” Ms Bergmann is quoted in a story filed by Agence France Presse.

Noting that little work had been done to determine the effects of exposure to these particles, Ms Bergmann said that once they were convinced that large quantities of microplastics can also be transported by the air, “it naturally raises the question as to whether and how much plastic we're inhaling”.

We agree with her that there is urgent need for research into the effects of inhaling plastics on human and animal health because researchers from the US Geological Survey reported this week that plastic shards, beads and fibres were identified in more than 90 per cent of rainwater samples taken from across Colorado, including at more than 3,000 metres high in Rocky Mountain National Park.

According to those scientists, the find suggests “the wet deposition of plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition”.

We also learnt that in April another group of researchers discovered substantial amounts of plastic waste on a remote catchment in the French Pyrenees mountains — 365 particles of microplastics in each square metre, to be precise.

Scientists have explained that every year several million tonnes of plastic litter course through rivers and out to the oceans, where they are gradually broken down into smaller fragments through the motion of waves and the ultraviolet light of the sun.

That should be of grave concern to us in the Caribbean where, as has been noted by the World Bank, marine ecosystems provide food and jobs to more than 35 distinct economies in the region through tourism, fisheries, shipping, and ports.

The World Bank has also reported that more than 320,000 tons of plastic waste remains uncollected each year in the Caribbean. Coral reef degradation is also strongly linked to marine pollution and represents an estimated annual revenue loss of between US$350 million and US$870 million.

Those are not numbers to scoff at. We have a duty to ourselves and the generations after us to ensure that we fix this problem. Remember, there is no planet B.


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