Atmospheric monitoring in Antarctica uncovers local sources of industrial chemicals

New research has highlighted the need for continuous air monitoring in the Antarctic after findings revealed a spike in pollutants following the installation of a new station building.

Led by Associate Professor Susan Bengtson Nash from Griffith University’s Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, atmospheric monitoring in Antarctica was undertaken as part of Australia’s commitments to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Associate Professor Susan Bengtson Nash, Centre of Planetary Health and Food Security, taking air samples in Antarctica.

Measurements took place at Australia’s Casey Station between 2010-2015 via Griffith’s Southern Ocean Persistent Organic Pollutants Program (SOPOPP).

Casey Station air samples and samples from the Norwegian Troll Station taken throughout 2013 were analysed for brominated flame retardant compounds (Polybrominated diphenylethers; PBDEs) which are recently-used consumer chemicals and recognised POPs.

Elevated levels recorded at Troll Station coincided with the installation of a new shipping container building at the station at the start of 2013. Measured PBDE levels were the highest recorded in the Antarctic atmosphere to date.

Associate Professor Bengtson Nash said the findings underscore the need for continuous atmospheric monitoring in Antarctica to disentangle remote versus local chemical pollution sources.

“Elevated levels of penta-formulation PBDE congeners at Troll coincided with local building activities and subsided in the months following completion of activities,” she said.

Casey Research Station Antarctica

“This provides important information for managers of National Antarctic Programs for preventing the release of prohibited substances in Antarctica.”

PBDEs are toxic and mobile chemicals, which means, despite their banning over the past decade, they remain in the environment today.

“Their popular use in building materials can make buildings and station activities a source of PBDEs to the local environment, with the effect on Antarctic biota largely unknown,” Associate Professor Bengtson Nash said.

“However, with Antarctic stations generally occupying coastal, ice-free zones of great ecological importance and sensitivity, the local emissions may carry a disproportionately large impact.”

The study ‘Brominated Flame Retardants in Antarctic Air in the Vicinity of Two All-Year Research Stations’ has been published in Atmosphere.