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Researchers find microplastics polluting archaeological sites: 'Microplastic contamination could compromise the remains' scientific value'

"The new findings could trigger a change in approach."

"The new findings could trigger a change in approach."

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers have discovered microplastics in the soil at two archaeological sites in England, raising questions about how archaeologists might go about protecting historic sites in the future.

What happened?

A team of scientists analyzed soil samples from two archaeological sites in York, England, and found microplastics in the soil at depths of 24.11 feet below the surface, Smithsonian magazine reported. The soil dates back to the first or early second century C.E. 

While the risk for false positives in microplastic detection are possible and have happened, the researchers discovered 66 particles consisting of 16 polymer types, according to data published in Science of the Total Environment, making the prospect of false positives unlikely in this case. 

Why is this research concerning?

While just two archaeological sites were studied here, it is likely to be a problem in other sites, as nearly a third of all plastic waste ends up in soil or freshwater, Smithsonian reported, citing the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Currently, "in situ" or on-site preservation is preferred among archaeologists, according to the Smithsonian article. That's because this method helps prevent site and artifact damage, preserves the contextual setting, and allows for future researchers to gather information. 

However, microplastics will change soil chemistry, which could cause organic remains to decay, according to David Jennings, chief executive of York Archaeology. This, in turn, could affect how archaeologists carry out their job in the future.

"While preserving archaeological remains in situ has been the favored approach in recent years, the new findings could trigger a change in approach, as microplastic contamination could compromise the remains' scientific value," according to CNN's Jack Guy.

Microplastics also affect the living, as they are now abundant in our environment as well as in the foods and drinks we consume. For instance, a single tea bag can dump nearly 12 billion microplastics into your beverage and most salt brands contain these tiny particles as well. They've also been found in protein sources like chicken nuggets and tofu, water, fruits and vegetables, sugar, rice, milk, and beer.

Plus, microplastics are inundating our oceans, putting marine life and habitats in peril. In fact, one study found that coral reefs are at risk of becoming "microplastic sinks." 

What's being done about microplastics?

It is essential that humans cut down on plastic consumption in order to slow down the amount of microplastics entering the environment. Some governments are leading initiatives to this end. For example, England and France have banned plastic cutlery for most fast food and takeout meals. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has banned Styrofoam takeout containers, and California banned plastic produce bags from grocery stores.

Plus, scientists are finding new innovative ways to break down plastic using hungry wax worms and fungus. Alternatives to plastic are also becoming more popular.

You can help by cutting your own plastic use at home and investing in reusable items like metal razors and non-plastic sandwich bags.

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