When traveling to Antarctica with the United States Antarctic Program your thoughts on personal hygiene and safety must be amended to include some of the physics of the environment of the ice.
Of key import are the following facts:
- There is no moisture in the air. In other words, humidity is zero.
- Bacteria have a really lousy time living outside. It's way too cold and dry.
- Viruses are rarely airborne and mostly spread by contact.
- Antarctica only has one diurnal cycle per year. It's night for six months and day for six months.
- With the exception of McMurdo Station which now has a reverse osmosis system that provides a continuous water supply by desalinating water from the McMurdo Sound, liquid water is in limited supply everywhere else.
- There is only one medical doctor on staff and he/she's a general practitioner who doubles as a dentist.
- While everyone who goes to the ice is pre-screened for communicable diseases, including sexually transmissible viruses, having one doesn't prevent someone from going.
The most important thing about health in Antarctica is that one's primary responsibility is to keep themself healthy without anyone's help. Becoming sick or disabled could require someone to risk their lives to save you, as happened with Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Pole Station when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to be medevaced in winter.
Ways to keep yourself healthy include:
- Avoid the McMurdo crud by washing your hands regularly, avoid being sneezed upon, and any other precaution you'd take while hanging around people with the flu.
- Avoid sexually transmissible diseases by availing one's self of the liberal supply of condoms doled out daily.
- Antarctica is a desert so one must remember to drink a lot of water. Dehydration is a big problem in zero humidity environments. In addition when the body is cold it will purge itself of water. Cold people pee like plow horses. To keep warm, drink water. Even freezing cold water is warmer than ice.
- Eat a lot. Antarctica is one of the places on earth one loses weight simply by existing. The body is burning more calories for warmth than in the temperate climates. To keep warm, eat. Food is always available on base or in a remote camp. Antarctica is chocolate heaven. Eat as much as you want if you're working in the field and you'll still lose weight.
- To keep yourself from falling into a crevasse stay on the marked red and green flagged trail. Stay away from black flags that indicate crevasses or weak snow bridges. Stay off the sea ice, glaciers, and the Ross Ice Shelf if you're not authorized to be there. Carry a radio at all times you have to be off base.
- Watch the weather warnings for Condition One.
- Follow approved safety practices at work. Remember, safety is everyone's business.
- Follow helicopter etiquitte.
- Go to Happy Camper school.
- Freecycle. This means you go to sleep whenever you want and wake up whenever you want. When you're not on base at McMurdo station where people follow a clock (New Zealand time) it's light all the time in the summer. You can sleep when you want and stay awake when you want. Some people find their bodies fall into a natural 25 hour rhythm, so their hours tend to shift daily from the rest of the earth trying to stay on a 24-hour clock.
- Learn to love disco. For reasons beyond the ability to calculate rational fact, ABBA is the official mascot band in Antarctica. When you least expect it, reasonable life-loving people will don day glo wigs and polyester and boogie down to the likes of DANCING QUEEN, and FERNANDO. You will then remember that since the Air Force ceased antarctic operations in 1998, you are on a continent without ammunition. However, there is no crime in Antarctica because there is no law, so the cognitive dissonance can be fantastic.
Things you don't have to worry about in Antarctica:
- Smelling like the monkey house at the zoo. Nobody uses deodorant. Nobody smells. You can go to one of the three gyms on base at McMurdo Station, work up a sweat until you saturate your underwear, and go straight to the 155 galley for dinner and no one will notice a stench. This isn't because people are used to other people smelling like musk oxen in rut, it's because there are no smells in Antarctica. There is no bacteria to turn your sweat into something foul and pee flavored. At field camps where water is limited, the work is harsh and the showers are rationed to one 2-minute shower per person per week. (People who take showers that are longer than 2 minutes using valuable drinking water are accused of taking hollywood showers.) While everyone has a horrible case of hat head and toe jam after a week without washing, no one reeks.
- Getting sick if no one around you is sick. The only way to get sick in Antarctica is if you come in contact with a sick person or a sick animal. Then you can get the McMurdo crud or something wretchedly evil like seal finger. Otherwise, if you're in the field with healthy people, the only medicine you'll need is aspirin and vitamin B-12 for your perpetual tequila hangover.
- Getting pregnant or an STD. There are at least ten times more condoms in Antarctica than penises. If you consider the fact that most geeks can't figure out how to get laid down there, there is probably more readily available birth control in Antarctica than Warren Beatty could consume if he were fucking a starlet per minute. If either of these things happen to you, you are treacherously mindless and need to be removed from the community.
- Getting fat. Your body is burning calories simply to keep you alive. You can eat like Tony Siragusa (a big fat guy) and look like Moby (a little skinny guy). If you look like Moby already and you don't eat like Tony Siragusa, you will die.
- Shaving or cutting your hair. There is a barber on base at McMurdo station. At environmentally sensitive field camps like Lake Hoare or Lake Bonney, disposing hair clippings becomes a concern requiring the observance of international law. Most people let everything grow and start listening to the Dead.
- Excretion. This is explained to you in awful detail. At McMurdo station and larger ones like Palmer station and Pole station, there are restrooms that look like a standard sexually segregated public restroom with all the standard porcelain fixtures. At field camps on the sea ice, the ice shelf, the polar plateau, or near a glacier, there are pee flags marking the location of the wretched yellow snow and black a-frame outhouses which simply serve to shelter one defecating on the snow. At environmentally sensitive field camps such as Lake Hoare, there are rocket toilets and U-barrels, the contents of which are carefully burned or hauled back through two oceans and hemispheres to the United States (Seattle) to be properly flushed.