Ants are useful creatures. As the most numerous insects on Earth, they have colonized nearly every habitat on land. So when a researcher wants to understand how far a contaminant has spread, they turn to ants.
In 2012, a group of French researchers found phthalates in the body of every ant they sampled. Ants from France, Hungary, Spain, Morocco, the Greek island Egine, and Burkina Faso all had at least some of the common plastic additive embedded in their skin. In the conclusion to the paper announcing their findings, they added a restless-sounding note: “In an attempt to find ants bearing no phthalate on their cuticle,” they wrote, they would next look farther afield. There had to be ants out there not yet full of plastic.
But there were not. Five years later, the team published their follow-up. They had sampled ants from the most remote forests of Guyana, and the areas in the Amazon rainforest farthest from any urban center. Again, phthalates were embedded in their skin. “These findings suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘pristine’ zone,” they wrote in a 2017 paper.