From national parks to the deep sea, plastic pollution is showing up wherever scientists look

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

In 2017, Janice Brahney was examining dust that had blown across the wilderness of the Western United States to determine its nutrient composition. She slid her samples under a microscope, expecting to see the usual quartz and feldspar grains, pollen and random bug parts.

Instead, what leaped from the lens were candy-colored shards and spherules — blue, pink and red plastics mixed with the dust like foul confetti.

“I was really taken aback when I saw this,” said Brahney, an assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Utah State University. “I had no idea that our pollution had extended to that level.”

Sensing a potential discovery, Brahney, along with fellow researchers, started monitoring dust deposits in nearly a dozen protected areas in the West — places we tend to think of as relatively pristine, like Joshua Tree National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon.

At each location, they found microplastics blown in on the breeze. In a study released Friday in the journal Science, they reveal just how much plastic is landing on protected areas in the West: more than 1,000 tons each year, equal to 123 million to 300 million pulverized plastic water bottles.

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