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England declines EU's new water pollution standards

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

In a move that diverges from the European Union's latest environmental protections, England opts not to implement stricter regulations on water pollution from pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.Helena Horton and Sandra Laville report for The Guardian.In short:The EU has updated its water treatment rules to include "polluter pays" principles, requiring industries to cover costs for chemical pollution cleanup.This update aims to significantly reduce micropollutants and nutrients in waterways, a measure England is not adopting.Northern Ireland and Scotland are moving towards adopting these or similar regulations, signaling a potential policy divergence within the UK.Key quote:"The UK must urgently mirror EU measures to make polluters pay to remedy the problems they cause, as well as to ban the use of harmful chemicals at source, before they harm our health and pollute our environment."— Chloe Alexander, senior campaigner at the CHEM TrustWhy this matters:Ingredients in medications and personal care products, often referred to as emerging contaminants, are increasingly detected in water bodies around the globe. These substances enter aquatic ecosystems through various pathways, including the discharge of treated and untreated sewage, runoff from agricultural lands and improper disposal of unused medications.A little bit of an anti-depressant makes wild guppies less active, camp out more under plants and freeze up for longer after something scares them, according to a 2017 study.

In a move that diverges from the European Union's latest environmental protections, England opts not to implement stricter regulations on water pollution from pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.Helena Horton and Sandra Laville report for The Guardian.In short:The EU has updated its water treatment rules to include "polluter pays" principles, requiring industries to cover costs for chemical pollution cleanup.This update aims to significantly reduce micropollutants and nutrients in waterways, a measure England is not adopting.Northern Ireland and Scotland are moving towards adopting these or similar regulations, signaling a potential policy divergence within the UK.Key quote:"The UK must urgently mirror EU measures to make polluters pay to remedy the problems they cause, as well as to ban the use of harmful chemicals at source, before they harm our health and pollute our environment."— Chloe Alexander, senior campaigner at the CHEM TrustWhy this matters:Ingredients in medications and personal care products, often referred to as emerging contaminants, are increasingly detected in water bodies around the globe. These substances enter aquatic ecosystems through various pathways, including the discharge of treated and untreated sewage, runoff from agricultural lands and improper disposal of unused medications.A little bit of an anti-depressant makes wild guppies less active, camp out more under plants and freeze up for longer after something scares them, according to a 2017 study.



In a move that diverges from the European Union's latest environmental protections, England opts not to implement stricter regulations on water pollution from pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

Helena Horton and Sandra Laville report for The Guardian.


In short:

  • The EU has updated its water treatment rules to include "polluter pays" principles, requiring industries to cover costs for chemical pollution cleanup.
  • This update aims to significantly reduce micropollutants and nutrients in waterways, a measure England is not adopting.
  • Northern Ireland and Scotland are moving towards adopting these or similar regulations, signaling a potential policy divergence within the UK.

Key quote:

"The UK must urgently mirror EU measures to make polluters pay to remedy the problems they cause, as well as to ban the use of harmful chemicals at source, before they harm our health and pollute our environment."

— Chloe Alexander, senior campaigner at the CHEM Trust

Why this matters:

Ingredients in medications and personal care products, often referred to as emerging contaminants, are increasingly detected in water bodies around the globe. These substances enter aquatic ecosystems through various pathways, including the discharge of treated and untreated sewage, runoff from agricultural lands and improper disposal of unused medications.

A little bit of an anti-depressant makes wild guppies less active, camp out more under plants and freeze up for longer after something scares them, according to a 2017 study.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

"How will the Earth look when pollution decreases?"

HOUSTON — This week EHN is publishing letters from eighth grade students at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in the Houston-area neighborhood of Spring Branch, Texas.English educators Cassandra Harper and Yvette Howard incorporated the environment into a series of lessons in December last year. Each student conducted their own research to begin drafting letters to EHN about their concerns or hopes. EHN reporter Cami Ferrell visited their classrooms to share information about her personal reporting experiences in Houston. The collection of letters, some of which were lightly edited, do not represent the opinions of YES Prep Northbrook or EHN, but are offered here as a peak into the minds of children and their relationship with environmental issues. Read the first, second, third and fourth set of letters.Diana MezaClimate change is changing our planet day by day. If we do not do anything about it, who knows what could happen in the future. Climate change has really affected our environment, from wildfires to extreme weather. People have experiences with climate change and so do I. One day during the summer, I went out with my family. It was really hot that day, but no one had expected what would happen next. Suddenly, I began to have a heat stroke. It lasted about 15 minutes, and it scared us all. And this wasn’t the first time this has happened. This heat stroke in particular worried me that maybe one day something worse could possibly happen. Since the heat is increasing every year, it is possible that in the future, my body will no longer be able to take the heat.I believe it is important we do something about this to prevent harming any more people. I think some way we can help is by trying to stop pollution. Pollution is one of the main reasons why our Earth is heating up more than ever. If we reduce the pollution we let out in our air, it could possibly make a big difference. Another thing I believe we can do to help our Earth is if we stop cutting down our trees. We need our trees to have fresh air and without them, our air quality could worsen.Thank you for taking time out of your day to read about ways we can improve our environment. With your help, we can make this a better place.- Diana MezaAzhael MedranoI am writing to discuss the status and my opinion of climate change. I want to talk about this issue because it is currently not just affecting us but also affecting all other living and nonliving things. This letter expresses my feelings about climate change and how it is dangerous in multiple ways.Climate change is now affecting everyone, and it changes the way we live life. The issue affects me and my community because the pollution we breathe in can harm us. An example of climate change that was near where I live was the Spring Branch fire on Hollister Road. This situation makes me feel that soon we are going to need some form of facial protection because of all the pollution. The thing I am mostly worried about when it comes to climate change is the pollution and the extreme temperature. To address climate change, it is important that we humans limit the number of times we use our daily vehicles such as cars, planes, and boats. A message I would like to give the government is to change the way most things are powered because as of right now most of our vehicles are powered by oil which creates more pollution for us to breathe in causing more sicknesses to happen and more deaths to experience. I want all the readers to understand that climate change is caused by certain jobs we take part in such as refineries and cargo sending ships across the world just to spread the pollution even more. Thank you for hearing me out on how we can make the world a better place for the future leaders of the world. - Azhael Medrano Felix PerezClimate change is one of the biggest worldwide problems. People think that climate change is the world just heating up and that is one of many (things) going on.For example, sea levels are going up and severe storms are currently happening and freezes could happen. In February 2021 Houston had one of the biggest freezes making people lose their homes. This is rare for Texas to freeze, since Texas is hotter than (other) states. This affected families by making them lose (their) homes for not being able to pay for the damage caused by the storm. (Some) families had less food than others. (Some) were stocking up on food to make sure that they can feed their family. People were in the streets starving (and freezing) to death in the cold. To address climate change, it is important that the people and government act. The government should turn off gas companies once a week every month while the workers still get paid to make sure we decrease the amount of natural gas being put out in our atmosphere. I want people to know that it is not just heat but people (will be) losing their homes and animals losing their natural habitats. People should attend meetings and protest to try to end climate change. Thank you for taking your time to read on how I feel about climate change and why I think we should find ways to end how bad it is so my generation can have a future and for our species to not go extinct. - Felix PerezCarolina GonzalezI believe that climate change is a tremendous problem because climate change is affecting humans. For example, hurting their lungs and causing them to have asthma, heart diseases, and more. But climate change can also cause (the) losing (of) resources like trees or food. This issue affects me and my community because I had asthma but it came back not that long ago. So the pollution has affected me.Some examples of climate change near my area was that it was flooded by a hurricane named Hurricane Harvey, and this year we’ve experienced a huge fire. Many trees were destroyed. The air was toxic to adults, but (especially) toxic for young children. This worries me for my future because I believe that possibly the citizens here would want to leave because of what the pollution is causing. It also worries me (that) the hospitals won’t have enough room for everyone that is having health problems from the pollution.Humans need to take control of climate change and try to fix it in any way possible. In Houston,Texas we had one of the hottest summers ever, no one is taking action and caring about our Earth. Parents need to be careful when their children are outside breathing those toxic chemicals and hurting their lungs. I would like to see a change, before and after, especially to those kids' futures. How will the Earth look when pollution decreases? - Carolina GonzalezDaniel MendozaClimate change is a real problem that is happening around the world, not just here. It has affected many lives, and it will keep on affecting many more lives if it isn’t stopped. The issue with climate change is that it isn’t taken that seriously and it has become a big problem because it has worsened over time. This issue affects me or my community because it can affect our health and how we live here in Houston. This year’s summer was the hottest ever recorded here in Houston, and it might be getting hotter each year. Also, this summer there has been some smog in the air, mostly what I think has been created by refineries or cars releasing gas into the air. In order to address climate change, it is important that we, as a community, act upon this by using less electricity and gas, using transportation without gasoline- like a bicycle or walking - and using an electric car instead of a gasoline car. What the government should do (something) too. From what I have heard, they have reduced greenhouse gasses, which is another factor for hot temperatures like this summer’s. The government should keep at it so there could be less hotter summers over the years. We people from Houston should know about this and must make a change from converting our gasoline car to electric, or to use less gas and electricity in our homes. We can make a change, even if it seems impossible. know we can, so that I and many other people can have a bright future ahead of us.- Daniel Mendoza

HOUSTON — This week EHN is publishing letters from eighth grade students at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in the Houston-area neighborhood of Spring Branch, Texas.English educators Cassandra Harper and Yvette Howard incorporated the environment into a series of lessons in December last year. Each student conducted their own research to begin drafting letters to EHN about their concerns or hopes. EHN reporter Cami Ferrell visited their classrooms to share information about her personal reporting experiences in Houston. The collection of letters, some of which were lightly edited, do not represent the opinions of YES Prep Northbrook or EHN, but are offered here as a peak into the minds of children and their relationship with environmental issues. Read the first, second, third and fourth set of letters.Diana MezaClimate change is changing our planet day by day. If we do not do anything about it, who knows what could happen in the future. Climate change has really affected our environment, from wildfires to extreme weather. People have experiences with climate change and so do I. One day during the summer, I went out with my family. It was really hot that day, but no one had expected what would happen next. Suddenly, I began to have a heat stroke. It lasted about 15 minutes, and it scared us all. And this wasn’t the first time this has happened. This heat stroke in particular worried me that maybe one day something worse could possibly happen. Since the heat is increasing every year, it is possible that in the future, my body will no longer be able to take the heat.I believe it is important we do something about this to prevent harming any more people. I think some way we can help is by trying to stop pollution. Pollution is one of the main reasons why our Earth is heating up more than ever. If we reduce the pollution we let out in our air, it could possibly make a big difference. Another thing I believe we can do to help our Earth is if we stop cutting down our trees. We need our trees to have fresh air and without them, our air quality could worsen.Thank you for taking time out of your day to read about ways we can improve our environment. With your help, we can make this a better place.- Diana MezaAzhael MedranoI am writing to discuss the status and my opinion of climate change. I want to talk about this issue because it is currently not just affecting us but also affecting all other living and nonliving things. This letter expresses my feelings about climate change and how it is dangerous in multiple ways.Climate change is now affecting everyone, and it changes the way we live life. The issue affects me and my community because the pollution we breathe in can harm us. An example of climate change that was near where I live was the Spring Branch fire on Hollister Road. This situation makes me feel that soon we are going to need some form of facial protection because of all the pollution. The thing I am mostly worried about when it comes to climate change is the pollution and the extreme temperature. To address climate change, it is important that we humans limit the number of times we use our daily vehicles such as cars, planes, and boats. A message I would like to give the government is to change the way most things are powered because as of right now most of our vehicles are powered by oil which creates more pollution for us to breathe in causing more sicknesses to happen and more deaths to experience. I want all the readers to understand that climate change is caused by certain jobs we take part in such as refineries and cargo sending ships across the world just to spread the pollution even more. Thank you for hearing me out on how we can make the world a better place for the future leaders of the world. - Azhael Medrano Felix PerezClimate change is one of the biggest worldwide problems. People think that climate change is the world just heating up and that is one of many (things) going on.For example, sea levels are going up and severe storms are currently happening and freezes could happen. In February 2021 Houston had one of the biggest freezes making people lose their homes. This is rare for Texas to freeze, since Texas is hotter than (other) states. This affected families by making them lose (their) homes for not being able to pay for the damage caused by the storm. (Some) families had less food than others. (Some) were stocking up on food to make sure that they can feed their family. People were in the streets starving (and freezing) to death in the cold. To address climate change, it is important that the people and government act. The government should turn off gas companies once a week every month while the workers still get paid to make sure we decrease the amount of natural gas being put out in our atmosphere. I want people to know that it is not just heat but people (will be) losing their homes and animals losing their natural habitats. People should attend meetings and protest to try to end climate change. Thank you for taking your time to read on how I feel about climate change and why I think we should find ways to end how bad it is so my generation can have a future and for our species to not go extinct. - Felix PerezCarolina GonzalezI believe that climate change is a tremendous problem because climate change is affecting humans. For example, hurting their lungs and causing them to have asthma, heart diseases, and more. But climate change can also cause (the) losing (of) resources like trees or food. This issue affects me and my community because I had asthma but it came back not that long ago. So the pollution has affected me.Some examples of climate change near my area was that it was flooded by a hurricane named Hurricane Harvey, and this year we’ve experienced a huge fire. Many trees were destroyed. The air was toxic to adults, but (especially) toxic for young children. This worries me for my future because I believe that possibly the citizens here would want to leave because of what the pollution is causing. It also worries me (that) the hospitals won’t have enough room for everyone that is having health problems from the pollution.Humans need to take control of climate change and try to fix it in any way possible. In Houston,Texas we had one of the hottest summers ever, no one is taking action and caring about our Earth. Parents need to be careful when their children are outside breathing those toxic chemicals and hurting their lungs. I would like to see a change, before and after, especially to those kids' futures. How will the Earth look when pollution decreases? - Carolina GonzalezDaniel MendozaClimate change is a real problem that is happening around the world, not just here. It has affected many lives, and it will keep on affecting many more lives if it isn’t stopped. The issue with climate change is that it isn’t taken that seriously and it has become a big problem because it has worsened over time. This issue affects me or my community because it can affect our health and how we live here in Houston. This year’s summer was the hottest ever recorded here in Houston, and it might be getting hotter each year. Also, this summer there has been some smog in the air, mostly what I think has been created by refineries or cars releasing gas into the air. In order to address climate change, it is important that we, as a community, act upon this by using less electricity and gas, using transportation without gasoline- like a bicycle or walking - and using an electric car instead of a gasoline car. What the government should do (something) too. From what I have heard, they have reduced greenhouse gasses, which is another factor for hot temperatures like this summer’s. The government should keep at it so there could be less hotter summers over the years. We people from Houston should know about this and must make a change from converting our gasoline car to electric, or to use less gas and electricity in our homes. We can make a change, even if it seems impossible. know we can, so that I and many other people can have a bright future ahead of us.- Daniel Mendoza

Most UK dairy farms ignoring pollution rules as manure spews into rivers

Exclusive: 80% of Welsh dairy farms inspected, 69% of English ones, 60% in Scotland and 50% in Northern Ireland breaching regulationsThe majority of UK dairy farms are breaking pollution rules, with vast amounts of cow manure being spilled into rivers.When animal waste enters the river, it causes a buildup of the nutrients found in the effluent, such as nitrates and phosphates. These cause algal blooms, which deplete the waterway of oxygen and block sunlight, choking fish and other aquatic life. Continue reading...

The majority of UK dairy farms are breaking pollution rules, with vast amounts of cow manure being spilled into rivers.When animal waste enters the river, it causes a buildup of the nutrients found in the effluent, such as nitrates and phosphates. These cause algal blooms, which deplete the waterway of oxygen and block sunlight, choking fish and other aquatic life.Sixty nine per cent of the 2,475 English dairy farms inspected by the Environment Agency between 2020 and 2021 were in breach of environmental regulations, according to new data released under freedom of information laws.The problem is prevalent across the UK; in Wales 80% of the 83 dairy farms inspected by Natural Resources Wales between 2020 and 2022 were non-compliant with anti-pollution regulations. In Northern Ireland 50% of the 339 dairy farms inspected by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs between 2020 and 2022 were not compliant, and in Scotland 60% of the 114 dairy farms initially inspected by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency between 2020 and 2023 were in breach of regulations.Campaigners have linked this pollution scandal to that caused by the sewage crisis because it also involves ageing infrastructure and intensification of effluent discharges.They say that pricing pressures from supermarkets, where farmers are offered very little for milk, have caused producers to intensify their production by increasing the number of cows they keep.Charles Watson, the chair of the charity River Action, said: “The unacceptable pollution levels caused by the UK dairy industry is not dissimilar to the current UK sewage pollution crisis: aged infrastructure, designed for much lower volumes of effluent, being overwhelmed by the combination of intensification of use and more volatile weather conditions.”A pile of steaming manure. Campaigners are calling for better slurry management. Photograph: Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy“With a herd of 50 cows calculated to be capable of emitting the equivalent amount of pollution as a human settlement of 10,000 people, it is hardly surprising that the dairy industry is placing an unsustainable pollution burden on many river catchments across the country. Meanwhile, yet another chapter in the British river pollution scandal unfolds, our impotent regulators continue to watch on in a solely advisory capacity, and the giant supermarket groups happily count their profits at the cost of the continuous degradation of the environment.”River Action is calling for dairy processors to offer incentives to farmers who produce milk responsibly, either by less intensive farming or by investing to dispose of cow muck responsibly.It is also asking for a strengthened response from regulators, asking them to fully enforce existing anti-pollution rules. Many farms go years without inspections because regulators do not have enough staff owing to underfunding. River Action has asked the devolved national bodies responsible to expand and extend existing grant schemes to improve the infrastructure for slurry management.The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We have set ambitious legally binding targets to reduce water pollution from agriculture and are taking wide-ranging action to clean up our waterways. This includes investing £74m in slurry infrastructure to help farmers cut agricultural runoff and rolling out new farming schemes to thousands of farmers to deliver environmental benefits and adopt more sustainable practices – all to reduce the amount of nutrients entering rivers.”

Black Americans more concerned than other groups about pollution exposure: Survey

More Black Americans are concerned about their local exposure to air pollution than other racial or ethnic groups, a new survey found. Gallup's survey found 53 percent of Black adults are “very” or “fairly” concerned about exposure to four types of environmental pollution or contamination in their communities. Forty-six percent of Hispanic adults and 35...

More Black Americans are concerned about their local exposure to air pollution than other racial or ethnic groups, a new survey found. Gallup's survey found 53 percent of Black adults are “very” or “fairly” concerned about exposure to four types of environmental pollution or contamination in their communities. Forty-six percent of Hispanic adults and 35 percent of white adults said the same. Black Americans also report higher numbers of being concerned about contaminated drinking water. At 46 percent, Black respondents' concern is 20 percentage points higher than white Americans. Thirty-nine percent of Black adults are concerned about toxic building materials in their communities, compared to the national average of 25 percent. Similarly, 42 percent of Black adults are concerned about land and soil contamination, compared to 37 percent of Hispanic adults and 26 percent of white adults. Generally, the survey found that adults living in urban areas are more likely to express concern about exposure to local pollution threats compared to people living in rural or suburban areas. Gallup noted that racial differences in the survey are not because minority populations are more likely to live in urban areas. “While concerns about exposure to environmental pollution and contamination are similar by race/ethnicity among Americans living in urban centers, they diverge among Americans of different racial/ethnic backgrounds living in towns, suburbs and rural areas.” Minorities of all backgrounds report higher levels of concern than white people, and Black Americans report the highest level of concern in communities like the suburbs and small towns. Black Americans also reported an incident of pollution exposure within the last five years at a higher rate than both Hispanic and white Americans. Black Americans were about twice as likely as white Americans to say they have had to relocated temporarily due to harmful pollution or contamination in their community within the last year, the survey found. “The latest findings from the Gallup Center on Black Voices indicate that environmental pollution and contamination are displacing a substantial number of Black Americans,” researchers wrote. According to the report, the Environmental Protection Agency has noted that due to “historical conditions such as segregation and redlining,” Black Americans are more likely to be exposed to polluted environments. The survey was conducted July 26-Aug. 10 among 12,684 U.S. adults. It has a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points.

Tiny Magnetic Particles in Air Pollution Linked to Increased Alzheimer’s Risk

New research suggests that magnetite, a particle present in air pollution, can induce signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia,...

New research links magnetite, found in air pollution, to Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, highlighting the importance of reducing air pollution to prevent neurodegenerative disorders.New research suggests that magnetite, a particle present in air pollution, can induce signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, leads to memory loss, cognitive decline, and a marked reduction in quality of life. It impacts millions globally and is a leading cause of death in older individuals.The study, led by Associate Professor Cindy Gunawan and Associate Professor Kristine McGrath from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) was recently published in the journal Environment International. The research team, from UTS, UNSW Sydney, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore, examined the impact of air pollution on brain health in mice, as well as in human neuronal cells in the lab.Their aim was to better understand how exposure to toxic air pollution particles could lead to Alzheimer’s disease.Environmental Factors in Alzheimer’s Disease“Fewer than 1% of Alzheimer’s cases are inherited, so it is likely that the environment and lifestyle play a key role in the development of the disease,” said Associate Professor Gunawan, from the Australian Institute for Microbiology and Infection (AIMI).“Previous studies have indicated that people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide compound, has also been found in greater amounts in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.“However, this is the first study to look at whether the presence of magnetite particles in the brain can indeed lead to signs of Alzheimer’s,” she said.The researchers exposed healthy mice and those genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s to very fine particles of iron, magnetite, and diesel hydrocarbons over four months. They found that magnetite induced the most consistent Alzheimer’s disease pathologies.This included the loss of neuronal cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial for memory, and in the somatosensory cortex, an area that processes sensations from the body. Increased formation of amyloid plaque was seen in mice already predisposed to Alzheimer’s.Behavioral Changes and Biological MechanismsThe researchers also observed behavioral changes in the mice that were consistent with Alzheimer’s disease including increased stress and anxiety and short-term memory impairment, the latter, particularly in the genetically predisposed mice.“Magnetite is a quite common air pollutant. It comes from high-temperature combustion processes like vehicle exhaust, wood fires, and coal-fired power stations as well as from brake pad friction and engine wear,” said Associate Professor McGrath from the UTS School of Life Sciences.“When we inhale air pollutant, these particles of magnetite can enter the brain via the lining of the nasal passage, and from the olfactory bulb, a small structure on the bottom of the brain responsible for processing smells, bypassing the blood-brain barrier,” she said.The researchers found that magnetite induced an immune response in the mice and in the human neuronal cells in the lab. It triggered inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn led to cell damage. Inflammation and oxidative stress are significant factors known to contribute to dementia.“The magnetite-induced neurodegeneration is also independent of the disease state, with signs of Alzheimer’s seen in the brains of healthy mice,” said Dr Charlotte Fleming, a co-first author from the UTS School of Life Sciences.The results will be of interest to health practitioners and policymakers. It suggests that people should take steps to reduce their exposure to air pollution as much as possible, and consider methods to improve air quality and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease.The study has implications for air pollution guidelines. Magnetite particles should be included in the recommended safety threshold for air quality index, and increased measures to reduce vehicle and coal-fired power station emissions are also needed.Reference: “Neurodegenerative effects of air pollutant Particles: Biological mechanisms implicated for Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease” by Cindy Gunawan, Charlotte Fleming, Peter J. Irga, Roong Jien Wong, Rose Amal, Fraser R. Torpy, S. Mojtaba Golzan and Kristine C. McGrath, 23 February 2024, Environment International.DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2024.108512

Antarctic Pollution Crisis: Microplastics Found To Be a Greater Threat Than Known

It’s not the first study on microplastics in Antarctica that researchers from the University of Basel and the Alfred-Wegener Institute (AWI) have conducted. However, data...

Recent research indicates that microplastic pollution in Antarctica is more extensive than earlier studies suggested, with new findings pointing to smaller particles and varied sources affecting the Weddell Sea.It’s not the first study on microplastics in Antarctica that researchers from the University of Basel and the Alfred-Wegener Institute (AWI) have conducted. However, data analysis from a spring 2021 expedition reveals that environmental pollution from these tiny plastic particles is a bigger problem in the remote Weddell Sea than was previously known.The total of 17 seawater samples all indicated higher concentrations of microplastics than in previous studies. “The reason for this is the type of sampling we conducted,” says Clara Leistenschneider, doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Basel and lead author of the study.The current study focused on particles measuring between 11 and 500 micrometers in size. The researchers collected them by pumping water into tanks, filtering it, and then analyzing it using infrared spectroscopy. Previous studies in the region had mostly collected microplastic particles out of the ocean using fine nets with a mesh size of around 300 micrometers. Smaller particles would simply pass through these plankton nets. The results of the new study indicate that 98.3 percent of the plastic particles present in the water were smaller than 300 micrometers, meaning that they were not collected in previous samples. “Pollution in the Antarctic Ocean goes far beyond what was reported in past studies,” Leistenschneider notes. The study appears in the journal Science of the Total Environment.What role do ocean currents play?The individual samples were polluted to different extents. The offshore samples, which were collected north of the continental slope and the Antarctic Slope Current, contained the highest concentrations of microplastics. The reasons for this are not conclusively known. It may be that the ice that tends to form near the coast retains the tiny plastic particles, and they are only released back into the water when the ice melts. It could also be the case that ocean currents play a role. “They might work like a barrier, reducing water exchange between the north and south,” suggests Gunnar Gerdts from the AWI in Heligoland, Germany.What is certainly true is that ocean currents are an important factor and the subject of many open questions in the field. So far the researchers have only examined water samples from the ocean surface, but not from lower depths. This is primarily due to limited time on the ship expeditions for taking samples and to equipment with insufficient pumping capacity. “It would nonetheless be revealing to analyze such data, since the deep currents differ greatly from the surface currents and thermohaline circulation leads to exchange with water masses from northern regions,” Leistenschneider says.It is also still unclear how the microplastics make their way to the Weddell Sea in the first place and whether they ever leave the region. The strong Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows all the way around the Antarctic Ocean at a latitude of about 60° south, might prevent their departure. The researchers are also not yet able to say conclusively where the microplastics originate. Possible sources include regional ship traffic from the tourism, fishing, and research industries, as well as research stations on land. However, the microplastics might also make their way to Antarctica from other regions via ocean currents or atmospheric transport.Research leads to awarenessClara Leistenschneider plans to focus next on analyzing the sediment samples she collected during the same expedition. This should provide information about how microplastics are accumulating on the sea floor, which is home to unique and sensitive organisms and is a breeding ground for Antarctic icefish (Bovichtidae).With the increase in tourism in the Antarctic Ocean, pollution may increase even more in the future, further impacting the environment and the food chain.Nonetheless, Leistenschneider remains cautiously optimistic: “Research on the topic has dramatically increased awareness in recent years of the problems that microplastics cause for the environment and all living organisms.” Although there is no all-encompassing solution, she notes that a variety of stakeholders all over the world are working intensively to better understand the problem and develop innovative ideas to reduce plastic pollution. And, of course, “every individual who engages in environmentally-conscious behavior can bring about positive change.”Reference: “Unveiling high concentrations of small microplastics (11–500 μm) in surface water samples from the southern Weddell Sea off Antarctica” by Clara Leistenschneider, Fangzhu Wu, Sebastian Primpke, Gunnar Gerdts and Patricia Burkhardt-Holm, 31 March 2024, Science of The Total Environment.DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2024.172124

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