Toxic Nanoplastics Found Polluting North and South Poles

25 January 2022 by Ricardo Pengel
blog author

​Evidence of nanoplastic pollution in the North and South Pole has been found by experts for the first time. 

Scientists at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands discovered the tiny plastic particles in ice samples, with the most prominent type being polyethylene (PE) which is the most common plastic in use, primarily used for packaging.  

The microscopic nanoplastic particles are smaller and more toxic than microplastics, but the health impact on humans is still currently unknown. 

Newly published analysis of the ice cores, conducted under strict conditions, in Greenland and Antarctica, highlighted that nanoplastic contamination has been polluting the region for at least 50 years.  

It has already been documented that a number of environmental pollutants have reached all pristine locations around the globe, including the polar regions, but while some such as lead and soot are decreasing in the environment thanks to international regulations, other contaminants are rearing their ugly heads. 

It is thought the nanoplastics were transported to Greenland by winds from North America and Asia as they are so small and light. Considerable research was already conducted measuring the plastics in the 5mm to micrometre size range (microplastics) but far less is currently known about the tiny plastics debris that fit into the sub-micrometre size (nanoplastics).  

For this research, scientists used a method based on Thermal Desorption – Proton Transfer Reaction – Mass Spectrometry to detect and measure nanoplastics of different types in the water. They were sampled from a Greenland firn core and a sea ice core from Antarctica.  

Using this method, they managed to identify polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and vehicle tyre nanoparticles in the 14m deep Greenland firn core and PE, PP and PET in sea ice from Antarctica. 

The experts discovered PE was the dominant plastics type in the Greenland firn core, contributing 49 per cent to the total nanoplastics mass. PE is one of the most used types of plastic, common in single-use packing materials such as disposable bags and food containers, houseware, pipes and agricultural foils.  

PE was also the most abundant type of nanoplastics in the Antarctic Sea ice core, contributing more than 50 per cent by mass. However, no vehicle tyre nanoplastics were discovered here. 

The sea ice samples used for this research are from Antarctic landfast sea ice (rock or floating ice), as opposed to packing ice that freely drifts in the open ocean. 

In 2019 the demand in Europe for PE was more than 14 million tonnes which accounted for nearly 30 per cent of all plastics used, according to PlasticsEurope 2021. Research shows that PE is now one of the most common microplastic types found in the Greenland subsurface seawater, Arctic snow and surface seawater of the North Sea which is consistent with the recent results. 

It is understood that the most likely origin of nanoplastics at the Greenland site is a combination of different transport processes involving sea and air transport and in addition, tourism plays a part in the most recent ice sections. 

The presence of nanoplastics here may be deposited from primary sources such as agricultural fields and mismanaged waste sites or originate from secondary sources (e.g. microplastics that have previously been deposited far away from the original sources and recirculate in the environment). 

Dušan Materić, who led the research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told The Guardian: “We detected nanoplastics in the far corners of Earth, both south and north polar regions. Nanoplastics are very toxicologically active compared to, for instance, microplastics, and that’s why this is very important.” 

Ricardo Pengel, Principal Consultant, Europe said "Nanoplastics are proven to be extremely toxic and have strong negative effects on the environment and the human body. Polyethylene (PE) for example, is one of the most used types of plastic, common in single-use packing materials such as disposable bags and food containers, houseware, pipes and agricultural foils. The fact that in 2019 the demand in Europe for PE was more than 14 million tonnes which accounted for nearly 30 per cent of all plastics used, makes me realize that individuals really have to step it up and be more critical when it comes to (for example) everyday usage of products containing nanoplastics. Additionally, there is also a big responsibility for businesses across basically all sectors and industries to come up with alternative solutions for products and materials containing nano plastics."

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Ricardo Pengel is a Principal Consultant within Acre Benelux's Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability team.​

Ricardo has recruited across various sectors for national, regional and international organizations. Prior to joining Acre, Ricardo worked for a renowned global executive search firm where he was part of the firm’s Procurement, Supply Chain & Operations Centre of Excellence and was responsible for retained searches across the Benelux region. Prior to this, he worked for a reputable global recruitment firm for five years where he was part of the firm’s Procurement & Supply Chain practice where he led a team focusing on senior management searches.

His earlier career was in the hospitality industry where he was working as a Corporate Event Manager for a global hotel chain and was responsible for contracting and organizing corporate events for global organizations. Ricardo holds a Bachelor Degree in Hospitality Management from Hotelschool The Hague in The Netherlands. He is fluent in English, Dutch and Italian.