The once pristine waters of Antarctica now contain plastic fibers

Not looking good.
Not looking good.
Image: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
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The remote wilderness of Antarctic isn’t immune to human pollution after all.

Samples of water and snow from across Antarctica contain tiny plastic fibers and traces of industrial chemicals, according to a new report from environmental advocacy group Greenpeace.

The findings come after a study last year analyzed existing samples of plastic fibers from Antarctica and found the presence too high to be accounted for only by local sources (such as research stations). The Greenpeace study collected samples from different parts of the region, including remoter parts of the continent, for testing. Until these findings, researchers thought ocean currents might shield Antarctica from pollution created by humans in lower latitudes, by creating a buffer zone.

The concentrations of the contaminants may not be large enough to be damaging to the local ecosystem now. But the ubiquity of plastic contamination—from tap water to the world’s deepest point in the ocean to Antarctica—is alarming. Some scientists believe plastics have permanently damaged the earth.

During a three-month trip, Greenpeace researchers found that all eight (pdf, p.8) seawater samples contained man-made fiber. The fibers found included polyester, commonly used in clothes, and polypropylene, which is applied to packaging and electrical manufacturing.

Greenpeace researchers also looked at the snow—among the nine samples collected, seven contained polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAs, which people use to make cookware and pizza boxes. PFAs are toxic chemicals that degrade very slowly and can accumulate in living organisms. They might have come to Antarctic with the help of ocean currents, noted the report (pdf, p.11).

“We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness, but from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity’s footprint is clear,” said Frida Bengtsson, a researcher at Greenpeace.