Thursday January 11, 2024

University of Rhode Islands

The coldest days of winter are here for many, making the frigid Arctic Ocean feel closer. Despite its distance from most people, “forever chemicals” have reached this region. But research led by URI Graduate School of Oceanography Professor Rainer Lohmann suggests that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) won’t stay there indefinitely. In a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, Lohmann and his co-authors report the Arctic Ocean potentially exports as many PFAS to the North Atlantic Ocean as enters it, circulating the compounds around the world.

PFAS are chemicals that have been used in such products as popcorn bags, carpets, and fire extinguishing equipment at airports and on military bases. They’re sometimes called “forever chemicals,” since there is no effective, natural way for them to break down once they’re released into the environment. “PFAS enter the ocean through a combination of atmospheric deposition and various discharges from industries, contaminated sites and wastewater treatment plants,” says Lohmann.

To get to the Arctic Ocean specifically, some PFAS hitch a ride in the air and fall onto the ocean’s surface, but others enter from adjacent oceans. The potential impacts of these compounds on marine organisms, depends on which PFAS are present and at what concentrations. These factors are ever-changing as water flows between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean. These water bodies are connected by the Fram Strait, which sits to the northeast of Greenland near the Svalbard archipelago. Warm water travels north on the eastern side of the strait, and cold water flows south along the western side, providing a dynamic gateway for PFAS transportation. So, Lohmann and colleagues, including GSO alumnus Matthew Dunn ‘23 and Marine Research Associate Simon Vojta, wanted to track the movement of PFAS in this region and identify how water circulation influences the mix of contaminants in the Arctic Ocean.

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