Polar bears are being exposed to TOXIC ‘forever’ chemicals as they are released from melting Arctic ice as a result of global warming, study warns

  • Toxic chemicals in non-stick pans and cosmetics are threatening polar bears
  • Substances are released by manufacturing sites and carried to Arctic by wind
  • They then accumulate in the ice before being released into seawater as it melts
  • It contaminates algae, which zooplankton feed on, and travels up the food chain

Polar bears are being exposed to toxic ‘forever’ chemicals used in non-stick pans and cosmetics as a result of global warming, a study has found.

High concentrations of the synthetic substances are being released into the atmosphere by manufacturing sites and carried by the wind from the UK and other highly-populated areas to the Arctic.

They then accumulate in the ice before being released and leaking into seawater as the ice melts in the region’s warming temperatures.

Researchers said there was evidence the chemicals were disrupting the hormone systems of polar bears after being consumed via their prey. 

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This graphic shows how ‘forever’ chemicals are being released from manufacturing plants in highly-populated areas and carried by the wind before accumulating in Arctic ice. Once the ice melts because of global warming the chemicals leak into seawater and contaminate algae, which is then eaten by zooplankton and travels up the food chain to seals and polar bears


PFAS are manmade chemicals used as oil and water repellents and coatings for common products including cookware, carpets, and textiles.

These endocrine-disrupting chemicals do not break down when they are released into the environment, and they continue to accumulate over time.

PFAS chemicals can contaminate drinking water supplies near facilities where the chemicals are used.

PFAS contamination has been detected in water near manufacturing facilities as well as military bases and firefighting training facilities where foam containing PFAS is used.

They also enter the food supply through food packaging materials and contaminated soil. 

The poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which do no break down in the environment, were discovered in brine on the underside of the ice in a study led by researchers from Lancaster University.

This is the main habitat for organisms at the bottom of the marine food web such as algae. Zooplankton feed on the algae and are in turn eaten by fish and shrimp, which are a source of food for seals — the prey of polar bears.

Scientists found the PFAS chemicals at up to double the concentration observed in the North Sea. 

This is despite the sample site in the Barents Sea being thousands of miles away from the heavily-populated areas of Europe.

Brine — highly saline water — in Arctic ice was found to increase the accumulation of PFAS, which are also used in waterproof clothes and fireproofing processes.

Researchers said there was evidence the chemicals were disrupting the hormone systems of polar bears after being consumed via their prey.  

Seabirds are also at risk, while PFAS have been shown to be toxic to humans and linked to a range of health issues, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, hypertension, thyroid disease, low birth weight and immunotoxicity in children.

As well as manufacturing sites, the chemicals are also being released by wastewater treatment plants, where droplets have been contaminated with PFAS washed off materials used in homes and workplaces. 

The sea ice in the Arctic used to remain frozen for several years but is now melting each summer because the region is warming at more than twice the global average rate.  

‘This one-year ice contains a lot of mobile brine that interacts with the overlying snowpack and can serve to concentrate pollutants like PFAS, which are usually found at very low levels,’ said Crispin Halsall, co-author of the study and a professor at Lancaster University.

‘Unfortunately, with earlier and more erratic thaw events, this can lead to the rapid release of the stored chemicals resulting in high concentrations in the waters surrounding the ice floes.’ 

He added: ‘It is only through this type of investigative science that we can understand the dynamics of pollutant behaviour and identify key hazards, particularly those related to climate change.

‘In turn this can drive international legislation so that chemicals that exhibit this type of behaviour are banned.’

The study has been published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. 


The pristine waters of the Arctic are turning into a floating rubbish dump – posing a threat to marine life, scientists warn.

One of the densest areas of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world’s seas has been discovered north of Norway and Russia.

Miles from civilisation, the amount of plastic waste in the Barents Sea – on the margins of the Arctic Ocean – has risen almost 20-fold in just ten years.

The detritus, which included plastic bags and fishing nets, was discovered more than 8,000ft below the water’s surface.

The litter was logged at two polar research stations between Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago – found half way between Norway and the North Pole.

The data was recorded by researchers from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Research Institute and published in the journal Deep-Sea Research I.

In one area, the amount of waste had risen from 346 pieces per square kilometre in 2004 to 6,333 in 2014.

Scientists now fear the region has become one of the world’s biggest floating rubbish dumps, alongside other zones in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. 

Fishing nets are a big source of plastic pollution on the Arctic island of Svalbard, with an estimated 80 per cent of plastic rubbish coming from fishing.

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