Nowhere is safe from microplastics. Tiny plastic pieces are in waterways, in our bodies, and now researchers have found microplastics in clouds on top of Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama.
In a new study published in Environmental Chemistry Letters, a team of Japanese scientists outline how they found microplastics on top of two mountain peaks in Japan. They climbed the peaks of Fuji and Oyama to collect water samples from the mists that veil the tops of both mountains. They then used advanced imaging techniques on the collected samples to learn more about the properties of the water and found little bits of plastic.
When they looked at the cloud water samples, the researchers found nine types of polymers and one type of rubber. Each liter (.26 gallons) of the cloud water that was tested had 6.7 to 13.9 pieces of these microplastics. It’s not entirely clear how these bits of plastic made it that far up the mountain. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report on airborne microplastics in cloud water,” researchers wrote in the study.
Microplastics are specifically plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters (.2 inches). Microplastics come from a range of sources. Large pieces of plastic items break down over time, car tires that have broken down, or personal care products that have plastic beads that eventually enter the water supply. These tiny pieces of plastic are everywhere—in Antarctic snow, on mountain tops, and even in people’s blood.
Seeing that even clouds contain traces of microplastics worries researchers because it will likely spread even more plastic pollution. A statement about the study from Waseda University in Japan explained that so much plastic ends up in the world’s oceans, and some of these microplastics could be launched into the atmosphere through ocean spray. “This implies that microplastics may have become an essential component of clouds, contaminating nearly everything we eat and drink via ‘plastic rainfall’,” the statement explained.
Researchers worry that these microplastics could also be contributing to climate change if found in large amounts in the upper parts of our atmosphere. The fact that these bits of plastic are everywhere is alarming, but being on top of mountains creates a new complication. When the microplastics are in the upper atmosphere, they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the extra sunlight. This causes the microplastics to break down and contribute to greenhouse gasses. Researchers said that the study findings could potentially be used to account for the effects of how airborne microplastics could contribute to global warming projections.
“If the issue of ‘plastic air pollution’ is not addressed proactively, climate change and ecological risks may become a reality, causing irreversible and serious environmental damage in the future,” Hiroshi Okochi, a professor at Waseda University and one of the study’s researchers, warned in a statement.
New research on the world’s microplastic pollution also points to potential health issues for mammals. A study published this past August outlines how mice that were exposed to microplastics at varying degrees experienced behavioral changes. Though the mice were exposed to the plastics in drinking water, the bits of plastics were found in organ tissue all over their bodies, including their spleen, liver, and brain.
Want more climate and environment stories? Check out Earther’s guides to decarbonizing your home, divesting from fossil fuels, packing a disaster go bag, and overcoming climate dread. And don’t miss our coverage of the latest IPCC climate report, the future of carbon dioxide removal, and the un-greenwashed facts on bioplastics and plastic recycling.