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“Forever Chemicals” Are Crisscrossing in the Arctic Ocean

Icebergs from above.
Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
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“Forever chemicals” are stuck in a loop in the Arctic Ocean, according to a new study.

Researchers observed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) circulating in the polar waters in an uneven feedback loop, whereby the Arctic Ocean exports almost as many chemicals to the North Atlantic Ocean as it receives back.

The findings were published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

PFAS cold swimming

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to waterproof consumer products like pans, packaging and paints. In recent years, the substances have been linked to cancers and birth defects, leading to mounting political pressure for stricter regulations.

Whether these come into force or not, tons of the chemicals are already in circulation in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic Ocean. Here, PFAS are stuck in an almost balanced feedback loop of ocean currents, as a group of researchers from the University of Rhode Island discovered.

After taking samples in three locations between Svalbard and the east coast of Greenland (an area known as the Fram Strait) and analyzing the water using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers found ten different PFAS, several of which were found in water 3,000 feet deep.

The two most prevalent PFAS were perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanoic sulfonic acid (PFOS). Although these chemicals have now been phased out of contemporary PFAS production, they were found in “high concentrations” in the polar water.

The researchers also observed PFAS flowing in each direction through the Fram Strait, which has a natural current loop that sees warm water travels northwards on its eastern side and cold water flow southwards along its western side. PFAS produced decades ago now hitch a ride on this natural carousel and slowly travel in huge numbers.

The researchers’ data showed that, in one year, around 123 tons of the chemicals traveled into the Arctic Ocean and about 110 tons moved into the Atlantic Ocean.

These values, say the researchers, are the largest of any pollutant reported in the

“The Arctic Ocean is starting to release more PFAS than it is accumulating,” Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told Technology Networks.

“Our results show that PFAS are present even in ‘older’ water masses due to transport on particles,” he added.

“Most frustrating is that the results show the contamination of PFAS has reached deep waters, so there is no really pristine waters left.”

Rainer Lohmann was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, Science Writer and Editor for Technology Networks.

Reference: Dunn M, Vojta S, Soltwedel T, von Appen WJ, Lohmann R. Passive sampler derived profiles and mass flows of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) across the Fram Strait in the North Atlantic. Env Sci & Tech Let 2024. doi: 10.1021/acs.estlett.3c00835.