Household pollutants detected around Antarctic stations

View of the Red Shed building at Casey
The 'Red Shed' and other buildings at Casey station contain equipment, furniture and other common household items that act as a local source of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (Photo: Micky Loederman)
Moss beds at Casey

Australian Antarctic stations are leading chemical management efforts in Antarctica after the discovery that common household pollutants are dispersing from Casey station into the local environment.

Research published in Environmental Science and Technology and led by Dr Susan Bengtson Nash from Griffith University’s Southern Ocean Persistent Pollutants Program, records the first evidence of the dispersal of these pollutants from local sources – such as furnishings and electronic equipment – in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Australian Antarctic Division ecotoxicologist and a co-author on the paper, Dr Catherine King, said Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs are known to reach the poles from other parts of the world through the atmosphere.

‘What this study shows it that human activity in polar regions has increased the potential for the direct introduction of these long-lived, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals into the environment,’ she said

‘The chemical signatures in the samples tested at Casey station were consistent with those previously reported in homes and offices from Australia, reflecting the consumer products and materials of the host nation.’

While existing POPs can’t be removed due to their long half-lives and persistence in the environment, the study provides information that will help Australia and other countries identify local sources of POPs that can be reduced or eliminated.

‘We’ve already started the process of eliminating or carefully selecting building materials and consumer products, such as personal care products, food packaging, clothing, carpets and electrical appliances, to minimise the potential introduction of toxic substances into the Antarctic environment,’ Dr King said.

‘This study provides a baseline by which future improvements in our operational practices, use of building materials and consumer products on station can be measured.

‘It has also alerted the international community to the fact that POP pollution comes from both distant hemispheric sources and local activities.’

POP records

The international research team collected and analysed a range of samples from around Casey station – indoor dust from four buildings, mosses and lichens in the immediate station vicinity, local soil, effluent discharged from the station’s wastewater treatment plant, and samples of sediment, phytoplankton, amphipods and fish from the marine environment.

Their analysis provided the first evidence of the presence of perfluoroalkylated substances (PFASs) in the Antarctic environment. These chemicals are commonly found in non-stick coatings and on waterproof clothing worn by expeditioners.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), found in electronic equipment, textiles and fire-fighting foam, were also prevalent in indoor dust, and the terrestrial and marine environments near the station.

Both these chemical families are common in Australian homes and offices and are listed under the Stockholm Convention as chemicals that should be ‘restricted’, in the case of PFASs, and ‘eliminated’ in the case of PBDEs.

‘As a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, Australia is legally obliged to reduce and ultimately eliminate these compounds from the environment,’ Dr King said.

‘Chemical monitoring is also a requirement under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol prohibits the importation of specific POPs of known risk.’

Lead author of the paper, Griffith University PhD student Mr Seanan Wild, said the highest concentrations of PBDEs in the study were found in the communications and science buildings, which contain a higher density of electronic equipment.

The highest concentrations of PBDEs in lichen and moss were found in samples close to the station, and they decreased sharply with distance. In marine sediments, PBDEs with chemical profiles similar to the station’s treated wastewater were highest in areas adjacent to the wastewater outfall.

PFASs were detected in the station’s wastewater, warehouse and living quarters – again at levels comparable to houses and offices around the world.

‘The study clearly demonstrates the emission of both PBDEs and PFASs from the station via treated sewage, and their presence in the local environment, with decreasing levels as distance from the station increases,’ Mr Wild said.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division