Scientists call for chemical pollution monitoring in Antarctica to support global chemical policy

A horizon-scan of chemical pollution research needs in Antarctica has called for Antarctic Treaty consultative parties to extend their national chemical monitoring programs to their Antarctic research stations and Territories.

Published in The Lancet Planetary Health, the ‘Personal View’ paper led by Griffith University’s Professor Susan Bengtson Nash from the Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, highlights that chemical pollution monitoring frameworks were lacking in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean region, which acts as barometers for planetary health.

In 2021, the UN announced global chemical pollution as one part of a ‘triplet planetary crisis’ (alongside climate change and biodiversity loss). The horizon scan was performed by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) Action Group – Input Pathways of Persistent Organic Pollutants to Antarctica (ImPACT).

Associate Professor Susan Bengtson Nash, Centre of Planetary Health and Food Security

Four priority research and research facilitation gaps were outlined, with recommendations for Antarctica Treaty parties for strategic action against these priorities. They include:

  • Priority 1: Utilisation of Antarctica as a natural laboratory for the identification of persistent and mobile chemicals
  • Priority 2: Investigation of chemical behaviour, fate, and effects in changing Antarctic ecosystems
  • Priority 3: Assessment of the toxicological sensitivity of endemic Antarctic biota
  • Priority 4: Sustained circumpolar chemical surveillance

“The advanced stage of this global threat calls for a step-change in the way in which chemicals are regulated globally,” Professor Bengtson Nash said.

“In response, in 2022 the UN Environment Assembly (UN-EA) committed to establishing a UN Intergovernmental Science-policy Panel for the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and Pollution Prevention by 2024.

“This body is envisaged to serve in the same role as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; that is, to provide policymakers with scientific assessments.”

As with climate change, chemical pollution at the poles of the Earth serves as a barometer of Planetary Health, and robust data arising from these regions has a critical role to play in the support of global chemical policy, assessments, and decision-making.

Professor Bengtson Nash said pollution monitoring frameworks currently were lacking from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean region, with global efforts often neutralised by the lack of legal recognition of the international commitments of individual Antarctic Treaty parties in the region.

“Timely progress in the field of Antarctic chemical research calls for Antarctic Treaty consultative parties to transcend what is legally required of them, and to extend their national chemical monitoring programs to their Antarctic research stations and Territories,” Professor Bengtson Nash said.

“Holistically designed chemical research and monitoring programmes, that encompass ecological drivers of change, will facilitate the construction of novel longitudinal datasets that can be used to answer vital research questions for the protection of Planetary Health.”

The research ‘Monitoring Persistent Organic Chemicals in Antarctica in Support of Global Chemical Policy; A Horizon Scan of Priority Actions and Challenges’ has been published in The Lancet Planetary Health.