Antarctic Research Bases Spew Toxic Wastes Into Environment
Antarctica is one of the most pristine environments on Earth, but it’s wrestling with a pollution problem. And the very people who are working hardest to protect the continent are responsible.
Across Antarctica, wastewater from dozens of research bases, housing up to 5,000 people at a time, mostly scientists, is releasing nasty chemicals into the environment—and into penguins and other wildlife.
The most recent culprit: a toxic flame retardant called Hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD.
It’s commonly used in insulation, building materials, thermoplastics, and research equipment, including computers.
Da Chen, an ecotoxicologist from Southern Illinois University, and some marine science colleagues recently tested for HBCD at the U.S. research base McMurdo Station, on the southern tip of Ross Island, and at a New Zealand base nearby, using samples from dust and sewage sludge.
The scientists also tested wildlife tissue as well as sediments from the area where wastewater from the two bases—water containing sewage, organic and inorganic material, toxins, silt, pathogens, pharmaceuticals—spills into McMurdo Sound.
HBCD was present everywhere the scientists looked: in dust from the stations, in the sediment, and in the tissue of the animals, which ranged from Adélie penguins and fish to sponges and marine worms.
Not surprisingly, the sediment nearest the wastewater source had the highest HBCD contamination. But what was unexpected is just how high the levels were—rivaling those in some rivers near highly urbanized areas in the U.S. and Europe.
The scientists reported their findings at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry meeting late last year, but they’ve gotten little press coverage.
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