In this May 27, 2020, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, members of a Chinese surveying team head for the summit of Mount Everest, also known locally as Mt. Qomolangma. Credit: Tashi Tsering / Xinhua via AP

University of Maine researchers have found high levels of toxic “forever chemicals” atop Mount Everest.

The researchers from the UMaine Climate Change Institute were part of the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, which sought to understand the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems of mountain ranges.

Their expedition uncovered surprising information about the chemical footprint that human behavior has had on the Himalayas.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, also known as PFAS, are not easily broken down in either the environment or human body, prompting state governments to call on the federal government to more strictly regulate them.

Although PFAS are present in the atmosphere and can be blown through the air to extreme regions, researchers did not expect to find high levels of the pollutant in such a high-altitude environment.

“We were shocked,” Kimberley Miner, an assistant research professor at the Climate Change Institute and research coordinator, told the Washington Post. “We retested everything like three times, because it was much higher than we expected.”

PFAS were used in the United States throughout the 20th century to provide nonstick coatings for cookware, to protect carpeting and upholstery and to waterproof clothing, among other uses. While the U.S. no longer manufactures materials with PFAS, many other countries continue to produce products with PFAS that are imported and sold in the states.

Researchers shared that such high amounts of toxic chemicals reveals the need for stricter regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency, but also shows the true impact of the increased interest in conquering Everest.

Miner said that the highest levels of PFAS were found in areas that saw a lot of traffic — and that it was likely that these toxins were being shed off from outerwear that climbers had worn.

“You’re seeing the highest concentrations where you have the most people and the most garbage,” Miner told the Washington Post. “It’s kind of like sampling a frozen landfill.”

In a study published last fall, a separate research group found high levels of microplastics at various sites on Everest.

Similar to PFAS, microplastics never truly break down and can linger in human and animal bloodstreams. Concentrated amounts of microplastics can be toxic and have been found to cause tumors and other health complications in both humans and animals.

As toxins and microplastics increase, the danger to the local ecosystem and communities that depend on meltwater from Everest grows. Current levels of PFAS have not exceeded “safe” drinking water limits set in the United States, but continued buildup could see that change.

“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,” Miner told the Washington Post. “And it is going to impact us more and more, in lots of different interlocking ways.”

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Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley, her puppy Percy and staying active in the Maine outdoors.