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Oxford-led study finds concerning levels of PFAS chemicals in Norwegian Arctic ice, posing risks to ecosystems

An Oxford-led study found that the Norwegian Arctic ice in Svalbard is contaminated with worrisome levels of PFAS chemicals, threatening downstream wildlife. 

Dr. William F Hartz, a researcher of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, led the study and detected 26 PFAS in a 12.3 m remote ice core of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. 

The research initially targeted the measurement of 45 PFAS in total using scientific techniques focusing on identifying different molecules based on their mass. “Svalbard ice cores have been shown to provide a valuable record of long-range atmospheric transport of contaminants to the Arctic,” the study stated.

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals used in everyday products such as clothes and firefighting foam and industries like electronics and construction. Research has so far found links between PFAS exposure and cancer as well as immune response, fertility, and obesity issues. 

Data obtained by analyzing the ice core showed the continuous presence of toxic chemicals called perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs). Another substance toxic to humans and animals – perfluorooctanesulfonic acid – was also detected in 82% of the ice core samples. The study found that due to the mobility of some of the chemicals, PFAS can come into contact with ecosystems in the Arctic fjords.

Since climate warming has been found to be more rapid in Svalbard compared to the global average, Hartz noted that as climate changes and ice melts, a “doubling up effect” of PFAS on animals can be observed. He said: “There’s a washout of contaminants that occurs seasonally … and some PFAS seem to be mobile during melts, which could be important to ecosystems downstream.” 

Hartz also added that “as a polar bear, you have exposure to toxic man made chemicals, and stresses from a changing habitat”. It has previously been shown that polar bears, animals crucial to Arctic ecosystems, had high blood levels of PFAS. 

Contaminated meltwater containing PFAS and other toxic substances also has adverse impacts on the entire Arctic food web that, besides polar bears, includes animals such as plankton, fish, and seals. 

The specific hazards of TFA are currently unknown. According to the authors of the study, the “limited knowledge about the safe levels of TFA in the environment needs addressing”.

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