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Pollution from sunscreen reaches the North Pole: Study

Scientists have discovered sunscreen residues in the North Pole, specifically within the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago.

By Ground Report
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Pollution from sunscreen reaches the North Pole: Study

Scientists have discovered sunscreen residues in the North Pole, specifically within the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago. This finding illustrates the extensive reach of these environmentally harmful compounds found in such products.

A first-of-its-kind study was conducted by a team from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the Institute of Polar Sciences (CNR-ISP), in partnership with the University Center of Svalbard (UNIS). They measured the concentration of these substances in the Arctic and investigated their source. The findings have been published in the Science of the Total Environment journal.

The study aimed to provide the inaugural overview of personal care products’ presence in the Arctic, offering data on their geographical and seasonal distribution in the snow cover. Consequently, samples were collected from five glaciers on the Brøggerhalvøya peninsula between April and May 2021.

Study measures Arctic substances, investigates source

The research involved the selection of diverse locations, encompassing areas close to human habitation as well as isolated regions. This facilitated the study of the occurrence and behavior of emerging contaminants. These are compounds presently in use but are being monitored due to their potential environmental harm. The findings indicated the presence of several commonly used compounds, such as fragrance substances and UV filters, at higher latitudes.

Marianna D'Amico, a Polar Sciences student at Ca' Foscari University of Venice and first author of the study, says that they have analyzed many contaminants, such as benzophenone-3, octocrylene, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, and ethylhexyl salicylate, that have never before been identified in Arctic snow.

As the snow samples were meticulously analyzed, the researchers discovered a range of UV filters, known as ∑4UVFs, with concentrations ranging from 0.2 ng L−1 to a staggering 358.4 ng L−1. Among these, BP3 and EHS emerged as the dominant UVFs, constituting 48% and 40% of the total concentrations, respectively, in 25 snow samples. However, the unusually high concentration of BP3 in one sample raised eyebrows, possibly indicating contamination during collection or preparation.


Excluding this outlier, the study highlighted the prevalence of EHS, constituting 64% of the total UVFs concentration, followed by BP3 at 18%. These chemicals, produced in significant quantities in the European Union, have been the subject of health and environmental concerns. EHS has shown potential bioaccumulation and toxic effects on zebrafish larvae, while BP3 has raised alarms due to its phototoxicity and potential role as an endocrine disruptor affecting human health.

Sunscreen pollutants travel globally

Surprisingly, the study found that the chemicals from sunscreens, known as UV filters (UVFs), aren't just showing up in the Arctic snow. Previous research found UVFs like EHMC, OCR, and BP3 in the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea. These polar waters actually had higher concentrations of these pollutants than what was discovered in the North Pole snow, showing that these chemicals are widespread.

Moving beyond UV filters, the study also checked for the presence of BHT and BPA in Arctic snow. While BHT was only found in small amounts, BPA was more common, with concentrations ranging from 0.2 ng L−1 to 245 ng L−1. What's interesting is that the highest concentration of BPA found in one sample matched levels found in a wastewater treatment plant in Antarctica, highlighting how these pollutants can travel long distances.

The study looked at how these pollutants are spread out in the environment, considering their distribution in the dissolved and particulate phases, as well as their variation with location and altitude. Fragrances and UVFs were more prevalent at lower elevations and areas closer to residential places. However, surprisingly, higher concentrations of some UVFs like BP3 and OCR were found at the tops of glaciers, potentially indicating that they can travel long distances through the air and preferably land at higher altitudes.

The study found that the time of year affected the concentration of these pollutants, with winter samples showing higher concentrations of these pollutants in the dissolved phase. This might connect to the Arctic Haze phenomenon, where pollutants from industrial areas in Eurasia peak in late winter and early spring. The findings revealed an unexpected journey of sunscreen pollutants, reminding us of the far-reaching impact of our activities, even in the most remote parts of the world.

Contaminants reach Arctic via atmospheric transport

Marco Vecchiato, an Analytical Chemistry researcher at Ca' Foscari and co-author of the article, explains that the results show the presence of emerging contaminants in remote areas as being attributable to the role of long-distance atmospheric transport. "Indeed, we found the highest concentrations in winter deposition. By the end of winter, polluted air masses from Eurasia more easily reach the Arctic," he explained.

"Certain UV filters, typically used as ingredients in sunscreens, present the most notable example," says Vecchiato. "We only find the highest winter concentrations of these pollutants in inhabited regions at lower latitudes. In Svalbard, the Arctic night prevents the sun from rising and people don't use sunscreen."

Some of these pollutants distribute variably according to the altitude. Lower altitudes manifest higher concentrations for most compounds, with the exception of octocrylene and benzophenone-3. Octocrylene and benzophenone-3 - two UV filters typically found in sunscreens - mainly occur at the tops of glaciers. Presumably, atmospheric circulation transports these filters from lower latitudes.


Data aids ecosystem protection, regulatory actions

The monitoring programs in the area and the protection of the local ecosystem will find this data useful. Aquatic organisms have already shown adverse effects caused by this type of contaminants, including alterations in the endocrine and hormonal system functions. Several Pacific islands regulate some of these compounds, and the European Union is investigating them.

"Andrea Spolaor, a researcher at CNR-ISP, concludes that quantifying the re-emission of pollutants to the environment due to melting ice will be essential for the protection of the Arctic environment. He further emphasizes the essential understanding of the transportation and deposition of these pollutants in polar areas, particularly in relation to variations in local seasonal conditions."

"These conditions are changing rapidly due to climate change, which is occurring four times faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world," he adds.

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