Scientists have discovered anthrax spores in the Antarctic hut used by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott
"Thousands of people have passed through the historic huts since they were rediscovered in the late 1940s without any cases of confirmed anthrax," said Nigel Watson, executive director of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Manchurian ponies and Himalayan mules, or their food, used in Scott's 1912 expedition to the frozen continent are thought to be the source of the spores.
The anthrax was found in the stables at the Cape Evans hut, some 16 miles from New Zealand's Scott Base and the neighboring United States McMurdo Station. McMurdo's population balloons to more than 1,000 during the summer months.
The hut has been put off limits to the few researchers working at the bases.
Britain's Princess Anne entered the hut, some 938 miles from the South Pole, in February to help launch a campaign to restore the structures left by early Antarctic explorers.
There is no indication Scott or any of his men, who lived in the hut in 1912, suffered from anthrax.
Waikato University scientists visiting the hut earlier this year found the anthrax spores and brought back some of them under quarantine.
"We are adopting a prudent approach to this finding," Professor Roberta Farrell of the university's school of biological science said. "We have significant further testing to do on the sample to confirm our results."
A New Zealand health ministry official said it was no surprise that spores could have survived in the frigid conditions.
"Spores can last for many years in the soil and don't pose a threat to humans unless they are inhaled in large quantities or come in contact with open wounds," the ministry's Douglas Lush said.
Anthrax, a bacterial disease, is carried by spores that can contaminate soil, and can be passed from livestock to humans. Cattle, sheep and goats are the most susceptible.
Five people in the United States died from the disease last year after contracting it from tainted letters sent after the September 11 attacks.
By Gyles Beckford