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Expand chart
Adapted from Ostle, et. al., "The rise in ocean plastics evidenced from a 60-year time series", 2019; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In the past decade, plastics have been found in the ocean's deepest and most remote points, collecting in massive, dense clumps, and clogging the stomachs of marine life washed up onto shorelines.

What's new: Tiny plastic pieces from broken down bags and packaging are now being detected in another element: the air. These microplastics are being deposited onto an isolated, pristine site in the French Pyrenees at an altitude of about 4,600 feet, per a new study. There's also been a sharp uptick in plastic pollution in the ocean since the late 1950s, according to another study published this week.

Why it matters: The findings bring new urgency to efforts already underway to assess the potential human health impacts from exposure to plastics and the cascading consequences of plastic pollution for ecosystems.

  • Plastics could harm human health if they are ingested in certain quantities over time but exactly what those quantities and conditions are, and whether humans are exposed to them is not yet known with confidence.

What they did: Researchers examined atmospheric particles collected between November 2017 and March 2018 near a meteorological station in the Pyrenees.

  • They found microplastics, ranging in size from about 100 microns to 3 millimeters, were abundant at the site, despite being far from any large cities that would presumably be sources.
  • Analyses of weather conditions found the plastics were likely coming from at least 60 miles away, lofted by the wind and washed out of the air by precipitation, the researchers report in Nature Geoscience.

But, but, but: The new study is limited in scope, having looked at just one small plot of land, and additional field and modeling studies are needed to understand the scale of the airborne microplastics problem, the study's authors tell Axios.

  • However, the results match other observations of airborne microplastics in the megacities of Paris and Dongguan, and raise the possibility that plastic pollution is hitching a ride with the weather, the authors say.
"It is potentially everywhere, it’s where you breathe … and everywhere the wind blows. So what you do impacts everywhere in the world."
— Deonie Allen, study co-author and researcher in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse, France

The big picture: It's not just microplastics. Pollution from macroplastics — bags, cartons and other debris — has also increased sharply in the North Atlantic.

  • Researchers traced a history of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic since 1957 using data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder, an instrument towed behind ships.
  • They searched the recorder's log for evidence of entanglement in plastic debris, and found the number of instances dramatically increased between 1957 and 2016, particularly in the North Sea.
  • "Plastics are everywhere, small and large, we are finding them all over the world," study lead author Clare Ostle, a research scientist at the Marine Biological Association in the U.K., tells Axios.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

World leaders react to "new dawn in America" under Biden administration

President Biden reacts delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

World leaders have pledged to work with President Biden on issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, with many praising his move to begin the formal process for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

The big picture: Several leaders noted the swift shift from former President Trump's "America First" policy to Biden's action to re-engage with the world and rebuild alliances.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: The Biden and Harris inauguration

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden watch a fireworks show on the National Mall from the Truman Balcony at the White House on Wednesday night. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden signed his first executive orders into law from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening after walking in a brief inaugural parade to the White House with first lady Jill Biden and members of their family. He was inaugurated with Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Why it matters: Many of Biden's day one actions immediately reverse key Trump administration policies, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, launching a racial equity initiative and reversing the Muslim travel ban.

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.