image image

Environment

Plastic contamination reaches Antarctica, Earth’s last great wilderness

Traces of microplastics and hazardous chemicals found in majority of snow and ice samples taken earlier this year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 9:29pm

Plastic and traces of hazardous chemicals have been found in Antarctica, one of the world’s last great wildernesses, according to a new study.

Researchers spent three months taking water and snow samples from remote areas of the continent earlier this year.

These have now been analysed and researchers have confirmed the majority contained “persistent hazardous chemicals” or microplastics.

The findings come amid growing concern about the extent of the plastic pollution crisis which scientists have warned risks “permanent contamination ” of the planet.

Earlier this week, the UN warned it is one of the world’s biggest environmental threats and said although 60 countries were taking urgent action more needed to be done.

The new report by researchers at Greenpeace is part of global campaign to create the world’s biggest ocean sanctuary in the seas around Antarctica to protect the fragile ecosystem from industrial fishing and climate change.

Frida Bengtsson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign, said the findings proved that even the most remote areas of the planet were not immune from the impact of man-made pollution.

“We need action at source, to stop these pollutants ending up in the Antarctic in the first place, and we need an Antarctic Ocean sanctuary to give space for penguins, whales and the entire ecosystem to recover from the pressures they’re facing,” she said.

Seven of the eight sea-surface water samples tested contained microplastics such as microfibres. Seven of the nine snow samples tested contained detectable concentrations of the persistent hazardous chemicals – polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAS.

Researchers said the chemicals are widely used in many industrial processes and consumer products and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues in wildlife.

They said the snow samples gathered included freshly fallen snow, suggesting the hazardous chemicals had come from contaminated rain or snowfall.

Prof Alex Rogers, a specialist in sustainable oceans at the Oxford Martin school, Oxford University, said the discovery of plastics and chemicals in Antarctica confirmed that man-made pollutants were now affecting ecosystems in every corner of the world.

And he warned the consequences of this pervasive contamination remained largely unknown.

“The big question now is what are the actual consequences of finding this stuff here? Many of these chemicals are pretty nasty and as they move up the food chain they may be having serious consequences for the health of wildlife, and ultimately humans. The effects of microplastics on marine life, likewise, are largely not understood,” he said.

There is relatively little data on the extent of microplastics in Antarctic waters, and researchers said they hoped this new study would lead to a greater understanding of the global extent of plastic and chemical pollutants.

The samples were gathered during a three-month Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic from January to March 2018.

A decision on the sanctuary proposal, which is being put forward by the EU and supported by environmental campaign groups around the world, will be taken at the forthcoming meeting of the Antarctic Ocean Commission in Tasmania in October.