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Nicotine, antidepressants and other contaminants in Antarctic waters

Nicotine, antidepressants and other contaminants in Antarctic waters

A study in which the Autonomous University of Madrid participated together with the Institute for Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies (IDAEA-CSIC), the Water Institute of the University of Granada and the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (CN-IGME CSIC), shows that the presence of contaminants derived from human activity in inland and coastal waters of Antarctica may pose a toxicological risk to the environment.

Taking into account the results obtained, published in the journal Hazardous Material Diarythe researchers recommend moving forward with the adoption of more effective measures to prevent their dispersal in Antarctica.

The analyzed samples come from the most diverse sources: streams, lagoons, springs and even coastal marine waters.

The work evaluated the human influence on the chemical contamination of the waters of the northern region of the Antarctic Peninsula. For this purpose, a series of anthropogenic organic pollutants of emerging interest were quantified, both in fresh water and in coastal marine waters, and the risk associated with them was also determined.

The analyzed samples come from the most diverse sources: streams, lagoons, springs and even coastal marine waters. Areas affected by human activities (bases, camps and tourism) and areas without apparent human or animal presence were sampled.

Various drugs and stimulants

Analyzes of anthropogenic organic micropollutants included seven drugs (the analgesics acetaminophen, diclofenac and ibuprofen, the cholesterol and triglyceride regulator bezafibrate, the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide, the antibiotic clarithromycin and the antidepressants citalopram and venlafaxine), the stimulants nicotine and caffeine. , the UV filter benzophenone 1 and the industrial anticorrosive product tolitriazol.

Miren López de Alda, scientific researcher at IDAEA and responsible for the analysis of these contaminants, notes that “nicotine and citalopram had not been studied before in Antarctica, while the rest of the substances were included in the study because the same or other research groups had already had detected them before and according to the previous results obtained, they presented a moderate or high toxicological risk for aquatic organisms”.

Analgesics such as ibuprofen, antidepressants citalopram and venlafaxine, the antibiotic clarithromycin, among others, appeared.

In addition to investigating anthropogenic organic pollutants, the study characterizes the physical-chemically investigated water, determining its components and the content of inorganic pollutants. Luis Moreno Merino, senior scientist at IGME, points out that “indicators of biological activity such as ammonia, nitrate, nitrite and phosphate do not show a significant correlation between them or with the degree of human or biological activity”.

“However, a relationship was observed between the total concentrations of organic contaminants and the individual concentrations of clarithromycin, nicotine and venlafaxine with the degree of human impact, which confirms that human activities carried out in Antarctica are responsible for the dispersion of this type. of contaminants in its waters”, he adds.

The work classifies the identified organic contaminants based on their presence in the investigated samples and a hazard index, which integrates their potential for bioaccumulation, persistence and aquatic toxicity.

Human activities contribute with contaminants that, due to their nature, persistence and ability to disperse, represent a potential threat to the Antarctic environment.

Jerónimo López, professor emeritus at UAM

In this regard, Cristina Postigo, Ramón y Cajal researcher at the University of Granada and first signatory of the article, points out that “After the risk assessment carried out, the substances of most concern in this region are citalopram, clarithromycin, nicotine, venlafaxine and hydrochlorothiazide, which should continue to be monitored in Antarctic waters and biota in the future”.

According to Jerónimo López, emeritus professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and one of the co-authors of the article, “this research shows that human activities contribute pollutants that, by their nature, persistence and dispersion capacity, represent a potential threat to the Antarctic environment.

In addition, in the words of the expert, “the areas without ice, where most of the studied samples come from, present a particular hydrogeological situation and are especially relevant because they are fragile ecosystems that contain great richness and biological diversity”.

Fresh liquid water is present in summer in certain areas of Antarctica / Jerónimo López

dispersed chemical contamination

The work shows that chemical contamination of anthropic origin is dispersed, reaching areas where there is no scientific activity and much less tourism. It is observed, therefore, that contamination by anthropogenic organic compounds of emerging interest is not limited to areas close to the anthropic activities that emit them, and can be influenced by different environmental processes.

Coastal waters showed less contamination by anthropogenic organic compounds and a more homogeneous pattern in terms of compounds present and concentrations than the investigated continental waters.

Jerónimo López concludes that “The results obtained recommend continuing with the monitoring and studies on environmental contamination in Antarctica, especially in a region such as the one studied, which has the highest concentration of bases, ships and visitors, both tourists and scientists and logistics operators. support team.

On the other hand, the results of this work indicate that it is recommended that the Antarctic Treaty System, especially the Committee for the Protection of the Antarctic Environment, reinforce the measures that lead to the reduction of the impact of the human presence in Antarctica.


Postigo, C., “Human footprint on water quality in the northern region of the Antarctic Peninsula”. Hazardous Material Diary (2023)

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