You probably haven't heard of "cyclic volatile methylsiloxanes", but you've almost certainly rubbed them into your skin. They're widely used in lotions and cosmetics to create that smooth, satisfying feel. And now scientists are finding — to their surprise — these chemicals in remote parts of Antarctica.
In 2009, a group of scientists took soil, plant, phytoplankton and krill samples all around the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. Their results, recently published in Environmental Science and Technology, show methylsiloxanes in low but detectable concentrations in these remote regions.
The results are especially surprising because scientists had thought that highly reactive hydroxyl radicals in the atmosphere would have broken down methylsiloxanes. Instead, it seems methylsiloxanes evaporated into the air, and the atmosphere carried them to relatively pristine areas. Deirdre Lockwood explains in Chemical and Engineering News:
The researchers hypothesize that these compounds are scrubbed out of the atmosphere by falling snow, and then make their way into the ecosystem when that snow melts in summer. At sampling sites with lower salinity, where melting ice provided freshwater, phytoplankton had higher total concentrations of cyclic volatile methylsiloxanes than at sites with higher salinity.
The concentration of methylsiloxanes in Antarctica may not be high enough to be worrisome for wildlife, but it does beg the question of what the hell else is out there. Earth's dynamic atmosphere churns the chemicals we use to places we've never even been. [Chemical and Engineering News]
Picture: A scuba diver tests the water near a scientific station on the South Shetland Islands archipelago in Antarctica. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko