The melting ice sheets in Antarctica are a major news item. However, Antarctica is having a lesser-known problem as well: it has become a new tourist destination. The bacteria from the feet of thousands of visitors could cause ecological devastation in the area.

Almost 15,000 tourists a year visit this pristine wilderness area, arriving on the continent and offshore islands by ship. Australian Infection Control Association researchers found that although visitors are told to wash their boots in seawater before setting foot on the ice, this isn?t enough to protect the local wildlife from potentially deadly bacteria.

Dr. Chris Curry, of Fremantle Hospital in Australia, and his team collected swabs from tourists’ boots over the 2000/01 and 2001/02 summer tourist seasons. Despite being washed by seawater, researchers found intestinal bacteria on more than 20 per cent of the boots. They suggest that tourists use the available and environmentally friendly disinfectant Virkon to wash their boots, and they?ve found no dangerous bacteria on the Virkon-washed footwear. The researchers have proposed guidelines for tourist operators to make sure that boots, and anything else which comes in contact with land, are disinfected.

One of the researchers, Dr. James McCarthy, says, “There are a whole range of potentially dangerous bugs which could be transmitted … and could do great harm to an area like the Antarctica.”

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