A team of researchers at the University of Exeter, led by a Greenpeace expedition, found that man-made microplastics and hazardous chemicals are widespread near the Antarctic Peninsula.

Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic litter enter the ocean every year, the researchers noted.

Although plastics continue to be a burden on the environment that should be studied, the most recent study sheds light on plastics that are very difficult to study and measure as they are 5mm or less.

Using infrared methods to analyze eight samples of surface water as well as nine snow samples near the peninsula, the study revealed that seven out of the eight water samples contained microplastics. Researchers found concentrations of hazardous chemicals at nearly every site they sampled.

The discovery showed that humanity’s plastic footprint is touching even the most remote and pristine areas on Earth, and a large concern is how microplastics are hardly visible, but are prevalent in marine life. They have been found in the stomachs of animals such as seabirds, filter-feeding sharks, shellfish, fish, plankton, whales and dolphins, along with many other marine animals that contribute to the food chain.

"Whether they come mainly from local sources, such as shipping, or have been transported on currents from much further afield remains to be seen,” David Santillo, a researcher who led the analysis, said.

Though the team from the Greenpeace Research Laboratory at the University of Exeler were not aware of the exact source of where the microplastics originated, they were able to identify the types of microplastics inhabiting the secluded habitat: polyester, polypropylene and nylon, as well as other microplastic materials.

The researchers also found that the snow samples, analyzed by an independent laboratory, contained hazardous packaging chemicals that are widely used in consumer products, such as water-proofing chemicals and grease-proofing chemicals.

These chemicals are transported from far distances, far-removed from their original source.

"The snow samples gathered included freshly-fallen snow, suggesting the hazardous chemicals were deposited from the atmosphere,” Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace, said.

The team suggests that the perfluourinated chemicals and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) found in snow samples were distributed into the remote environment in three ways: deposited from snow or rain after binding through suspended transport through the atmosphere; precursor substances transform into persistent PFASs due to oxidation over long distances, and are deposited into mountains or cold regions; ocean currents aid in transporting PFASs across the world.

These chemicals degrade at a significantly slow pace in the environment or not at all, and both chemicals and microplastics have been found to impact development and reproduction in wildlife, according to the findings that are detailed in the research, Microplastics and Persistent Fluorinated Chemicals in the Antarctic.

“The chemicals that we detected in the snow samples also show how pervasive humanity’s impact can be,” Casson said.