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The non-biodegradable materials can take thousands of years to erode.

J.D. Simkins  –  November 24, 2020

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Traces of one of the more menacing elements of pollution are now being detected at the highest point in the world as a decades-long surge in tourism has steadily eroded the once-pristine landscape.

Ten research teams gathered on Mount Everest to collect stream water and snow samples from various locations, including the surrounding valley and the “Balcony,” an area just below the 29,029-foot summit where fatalities traditionally spike due to precarious oxygen levels.

Findings from the samples, which were published this month in the journal One Earth, painted an ominous picture of an area littered with the microplastics of fibrous materials such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon.

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Commonly found in climbing gear and clothing, these non-biodegradable materials can take thousands of years to erode, creating potential for extensive damage to an area that relies on the region’s rapidly-thinning glaciers and snow melt as its primary water source.

The study’s authors pointed to increased tourism in the region as a primary culprit, an trend only expected to increase in years to come. In 1979, for example, just 3,600 tourists visited Mount Everest. By 2016, that number had ballooned to 45,000.

The Everest Base Camp

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“Although increasing numbers of visitors have immensely boosted the local economy, the negative impacts of tourism on Mt. Everest are becoming apparent and have been noted for several years,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study’s findings confirm microplastics are now intruding everywhere from the highest point in the world to the deepest part of Earth’s oceans—the Mariana Trench.

A separate study published in a November 2018 issue of Geochemical Perspectives revealed “abundances of microplastic in the deepest part of the world’s ocean,” the authors wrote.

These findings “suggest that manmade plastics have contaminated the most remote and deepest places on the planet,” a region the authors characterized as “one of the largest sinks for microplastic debris on Earth.”

Unseen to the naked eye, these microscopic airborne plastics fill the atmosphere around us, raining down on untouched ecosystems and posing significant risks to the respiratory systems of wildlife and humans alike. 

In the West alone, over 1,000 metric tons of the plastic particles fall per year throughout protected lands, according to a recently-published study in the journal Science. In those select areas, the quantity of polluted air particles amounts to the equivalent of hundreds of millions of plastic bottles.

“There’s no nook or cranny on the surface of the earth that won’t have microplastics,” the study’s lead author and Utah State University scientist Dr. Janice Brahney told the New York Times. “It’s really unnerving to think about it.”

“The effects of microplastic … is still being researched, but it is known that even the physical act of eating it can block the digestive tract of small creatures like worms,” Steve Allen, a researcher at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, told the Washington Post. “That is not even counting the mutagenic, carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals that plastic carries.”

While concerning, airborne plastic particles are still limited to “trace amounts in comparison to other prominent particles” historically detrimental to clean air, Stephanie Wright, a King’s College London research fellow, told the Times.

“Until we have a robust understanding of our exposure, it’s difficult to infer health effects.”

The environmental detriments of airborne plastics, as well as actions required to stem the problem, may not yet be fully grasped, but the study’s authors believe consequences “are inescapable in the immediate future.”

“Eleven billion metric tons of plastic are projected to accumulate in the environment by 2025,” the authors wrote. “These findings should underline the importance of reducing pollution from such materials.”


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