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Pollution at the Top

No matter how high up you go, you can't escape pollution. A new study of a glacier on top of Mt. Everest--the tallest mountain in the world--shows how true this is.

Nearly one-fifth of the earth’s surface is comprised of mountains that play a role in the storage and distribution of fresh water, with one-tenth of the world's population relying on that mountain snowpack as their sole source of fresh water. Researchers collected soil samples from a glacier on top of Mount Everest and analyzed them for trace element concentrations of cadmium, nickel, zinc, chromium, cobalt, arsenic, copper, manganese, mercury, vanadium, and magnesium. Most trace elements were at acceptable levels, but the amounts arsenic and cadmium in the snow samples exceeded EPA drinking water standards. Arsenic is associated with bladder, skin, and kidney cancer, while cadmium is linked to lung and prostate cancer through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. Both are the by-products of fossil fuel combustion, meaning that the levels are a result of the surrounding region’s rapid increase in industrialization, and Asia is the leading contributor of atmospheric pollutants.

Other studies on neighboring mountains have revealed similar findings indicating the potential for multiple water sources to become contaminated. Mount Everest was selected because of its altitude and remoteness. Other research has been performed at comparable sites in Europe, Japan, Alaska, and New Zealand. Studies in Antarctica found concentrations three to four times lower than the Mt. Everest analysis, which means that the amount of arsenic and cadmium on there definitely came from human contributions.

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