Karen Lavin graduated from the university on Saturday with a PhD in chemistry.
Her doctoral research focused on analysing the source of “semi-volatile organic contaminants” in the Southern Alps, and included air testing undertaken there in early 2009.
“Many organic contaminants are transported through the atmosphere and accumulate in cold, remote ecosystems,” she noted in a summary of her research.
Because of their potential toxicity, it was important to understand the sources influencing the “contaminant burden” in such sites.
The pesticide endosulfan had earlier been banned in New Zealand but had still been in limited use in Australia, including in cotton-growing operations in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, when the air testing was done on this side of the Tasman, she said.
Endosulfan has since also been banned in Australia.
Dr Lavin, who recently began a research-related job with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, emphasised the tiny amounts of contaminants found at the alpine sites posed no risk to humans and were far below levels typically found at other comparable alpine sites overseas.
Nevertheless, the results clearly showed that “even using a pesticide in your own back yard can have quite far-reaching effects”.
Pesticide use in Australia had resulted in contaminants being carried by prevailing high winds and finding their way to a remote, “pristine” part of New Zealand.
“It’s a global thing. It’s amazing how far they can travel,” she said.
Australia had been the main source of endosulfan in the study air samples, and combustion-related contaminants from the Victorian bushfires had also been detected.
Traces of the insecticide chlorpyrifos, from Canterbury, had also been found.