Researchers Find Dangerous “Forever Chemicals” on Mount Everest

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

For years, scientists have known that there is no valley low enough or river wide enough to avoid contamination by forever chemicals, but now they know for sure that there is no mountain high enough either. Researchers have found high levels of PFAS, dangerous chemicals used in the production of plastics and waterproof materials, on Mount Everest. As more and more climbers take on the behemoth each year, they’re leaving more waste along the path, and as these forever chemicals build, they could create ongoing health crises for local communities.

Why This Matters: PFAS and other chemicals don’t just disappear over time. Instead, they collect in people and environments and can cause harm not only to those exposed first-hand but also generations later. Forever chemicals are known to cause a range of health risks in people, including obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and severe COVID-19. In animals, forever chemicals can cause infertility and death. Although Everest may seem isolated, snow and ice melt from the Himalayas supplies water to 10 rivers and 1.3 billion people. While current PFAS levels are below the U.S.’s drinking water limit, researchers fear that those levels will only grow, risking the health of reliant communities for generations to come.

Nowhere is Safe

“We say, ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,’ but we leave chemicals,” said Rainer Lohmann, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island. Researchers coordinated by the University of Maine Climate Change Institute embarked on an Everest expedition to take samples of the snow and ice at different levels of the mountain. They expected to find trace PFAS levels from wind and atmospheric deposits, but they found garbage, feces, plastic bottles, and over 300 climbers backed up heading toward the peak. These contaminants and waterproof climbing gear like tents, tarps, jackets, and boots deposited forever chemicals onto the mountain, which then flowed downward. Researchers found that PFAS levels were exceptionally high lower down on the mountain. 

Each year, more people make the trek to the peak of Everest. In 2018, 807 people summited Mount Everest; several did not make it back to the mountain’s base. When traffic jams happen on the mountain, they prolong the amount of time climbers spend at dangerous altitudes and deplete climbers’ energy, making the descent extremely dangerous. The more people make the climb, the more pollution they leave, and the deadlier the climb becomes. Everest’s popularity has left behind more PFAS and pollution than other similar mountains. “You’re seeing the highest concentrations where you have the most people and the most garbage,” said researcher Kimberley Miner. “It’s kind of like sampling a frozen landfill.”

 “The more chemicals and the more plastics we put into the environment, the more they are going to build up, and they are going to stay, and they are not going to go away,” said Miner. “And it is going to impact us more and more, in lots of different interlocking ways.” The devastation of one of the earth’s greatest natural monuments should serve as a warning that the dangers of human activity know no limits.

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