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Greenpeace expedition finds microplastics in remote Antarctic waters

By Marjorie van Elven


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Water and snow samples collected in a recent Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic have revealed the presence of microplastics and persistent chemicals. Their findings confirm that plastic can be found even in the most remote areas of the planet. The extensive use of polyester in the fashion industry is partially to blame for the problem: around 60 percent of garments made around the world contain polyester, according to a report released by Greenpeace in 2017.

”There have been few studies about microplastics in Antarctic waters, and this analysis provides valuable new information on the presence and status of such contamination in the region”, said Greenpeace in a statement. The expedition took place between January and March 2018.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic with a diameter of 5 millimeters or less. They are either provenient from larger plastic pieces that end up in the ocean, or from plastic fragments that were manufactured to be that small -- which is the case of the plastic in synthetic clothing. Microplastics were found in seven of the eight water samples collected by Greenpeace, with at least one fiber per liter.

Microplastics are hazardous for the environment because they can be ingested by sea animals, which can cause gut and tissue inflammations. “Because of their synthetic nature and their propensity to absorb or attract chemicals from seawater on to their surfaces, microplastics can also carry substantial concentrations of a range of chemical additives and contaminants”, stated Greenpeace.

Greenpeace expedition finds microplastics and PFASs in Antarctica

In addition, Greenpeace has detected the presence of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in six water samples and nine fresh snow samples. PFASs are used in the industrial processes for several consumer products. In the fashion industry, they are employed to make clothes waterproof. However, PFASs’ particles do not biodegrade.

While the potential health effects of PFASs are not fully understood by scientists, laboratory animals exposed to high doses of these chemicals have shown alterations in their liver, thyroid and pancreatic functions, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PFASs have also been linked to changes in wild animals’ hormone levels, which can lead to reproductive challenges.

The latest findings about PFASs in the Antarctic snow confirm the results of previous Greenpeace expeditions in Asia, Europe and South America. “Once they are released, PFAs are spread globally by long distance transport through the atmosphere and are deposited as snow in all remote regions”, read the organization’s report.

Picture 1: courtesy of Greenpeace, taken by Christian Åslund. Picture 2: courtesy of Greenpeace, taken by Paul Hilton