It’s no wonder that for most of us, the mountains are the source of thrill: the adventure that we crave for. But for researchers, the thrill of their findings are stirring. About four thousand five hundred miles away from the Himalaya, researcher and National Geographic explorer Imogen Napper at the University of Plymouth UK was feeling close to the Himalayas. Not because she had been to the mountain, but because she studies the components making the mountain itself. She holds a different form of connection than most of us. She led a recent study focusing on analysis of sediments of Mount Everest that was published in the journal ‘One Earth’.
The expedition team collected a number of samples; initiating from the lower streams, crossing the base camp and reaching the balcony of Mount Everest. All together 7 snow samples and 5 stream samples were collected. As expected the amount of microplastic was found to be the highest around the Everest base camp, wherein for every liter of water equivalent of snow about 79 Microplastics were confirmed. But she was surprised discovering significant traces of microplastic even near the summit of Mt. Everest. There were about 12 microplastic for every liter of water equivalent at an altitude of 8,440m. The figures were quite astounding and Napper was shocked to have first found this.
“Initially I didn’t know what to expect but in every sample that I analyzed there were significant traces of microplastics. It was everywhere!” Napper says. “Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”
Among the microplastic types; polyesters, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene were the highest.
Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.
Imogen Napper (The Plastic Detective)
Microplastic is relatively new terrain for scientific study. The name itself – ‘Microplastic’ – was first coined by Professor Richard Thompson in 2004. As of right now its detailed health effects are unknown. Health reporters at the Washington Post write ‘when we are eating a food or sipping in water, we are certainly taking in tiny plastic particles along with it.’
In our brief email correspondence, Dr. Basant Giri, Chemist and Senior Scientist at Kathmandu Institute of Applied Sciences (KIAS), who was not involved with the study, writes, “Microplastics have been recorded from almost all locations on earth. This work on microplastics in Mt. Everest region is an alarm call to people involved in the mountaineering profession and our regulating agencies since the source of the microplastics in these regions has been suggested to climber’s clothing and equipment.”
He also emphasized the need of additional research and exploration in this new field so as to “fully understand the ubiquity of microplastics and their source in our mountains. It will help in adoption of appropriate strategies to minimize the microplastic pollution.”
Though research in this field is still at its infancy, preliminary research findings suggest that microplastics can cross hardy membranes protecting the brain itself and can mix well with the blood stream. Some varieties of microplastics have potential to interfere with fertility of both male and female. It can potentially disrupt hormonal regulations as well. From the bottom corners of the ocean to the balcony of Everest, microplastics – often smaller than the size of a pencil nip – seem to occupy almost every corner of the earth. Researchers claim an average American inhales 74,000 microplastics each year. Another work from an Australian researcher claim that people consume 5 grams of microplastics a week. (This work is still to be peer reviewed)
For materials that are so cosmic in distribution, it certainly needs prominent research interest. Citizens, our institutions and agencies all should be well aware about the potential danger it possesses upon our very future.