Flame Retardant Penguins?

New research reveals surprising pollution levels in Antarctica

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that surrounds it are considered to be among the last pristine places in the world. But new research shows that some of the continent's birds and fish are being contaminated by a pollutant normally found in metropolitan rivers.

In research first reported by Environmental Health News (PDF), Da Chen, an ecotoxicologist at Southern Illinois University, and colleagues reveal high levels of the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD, in parts of Antarctica's McMurdo Sound. This area is home to research stations established by the U.S. and New Zealand. Thousands of scientists are there during the research season, and many more tourists visit each year. Wastewater from the research facilities that is contaminated with flame retardants and other persistent organic pollutants has infiltrated the sediment near the sound.

The polluted area is a gateway to the Ross Sea, which covers 3.6 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles) of ocean and is considered “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth” by the journal Biological Conservation. According to Chen, though, HBCD levels in the sound's sediment are comparable in some places to those found in highly polluted rivers near densely populated areas, such as Michigan's Detroit River. This contamination has the potential to disrupt animals' thyroid hormones, which can affect brain development and weight. HBCD has been found in the smallest of sea sponges as well as Adélie penguins, potentially affecting the health of other animals throughout the region's food web.


Previous research has found other flame retardants—now-banned brominated compounds—in fish and wildlife near McMurdo Station's wastewater outflow. While these problems would have to be addressed locally, flame retardants are not the only contaminant of concern in Antarctic waters.

The Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council have reported elevated mercury levels in Antarctic toothfish, more popularly known as Chilean sea bass, which could present a risk to consumers. Discharged by power plants, mercury is transferred globally through air and wind currents and tends to migrate and concentrate near the poles.

Creation of a network of large-scale, fully protected marine reserves in the Southern Ocean could help mitigate pollution problems. Marine reserves promote ecosystem resilience and offer animals such as toothfish and penguins a refuge from intensive fishing efforts and other pressures that may throw the food web out of balance.

"It is surprising that the remote Ross Sea and the animals that depend on it are contaminated with industrial pollutants normally associated with urban environments," said Andrea Kavanagh, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Penguin Conservation program and a Southern Ocean expert. "Marine reserves are not a direct fix for the pollution problem but they do help mitigate some effects and give animals some protection from other pressures.  The most effective way to ensure a healthy future is through the creation of large-scale, fully protected marine reserves."

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.