Although the remote continent of Antarctica is perceived as the symbol of the last great wilderness, the human presence in the Southern Ocean and the continent began in the early 1900s for hunting, fishing and exploration, and many invasive plant and animal species have been deliberately introduced in several sub-Antarctic islands. Over the last 50 years, the development of research and tourism have locally affected terrestrial and marine coastal ecosystems through fuel combustion (for transportation and energy production), accidental oil spills, waste incineration and sewage. Although natural "barriers" such as oceanic and atmospheric circulation protect Antarctica from lower latitude water and air masses, available data on concentrations of metals, pesticides and other persistent pollutants in air, snow, mosses, lichens and marine organisms show that most persistent contaminants in the Antarctic environment are transported from other continents in the Southern Hemisphere. At present, levels of most contaminants in Antarctic organisms are lower than those in related species from other remote regions, except for the natural accumulation of Cd and Hg in several marine organisms and especially in albatrosses and petrels. The concentrations of organic pollutants in the eggs of an opportunistic top predator such as the south polar skua are close to those that may cause adverse health effects. Population growth and industrial development in several countries of the Southern Hemisphere are changing the global pattern of persistent anthropogenic contaminants and new classes of chemicals have already been detected in the Antarctic environment. Although the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty provides strict guidelines for the protection of the Antarctic environment and establishes obligations for all human activity in the continent and the Southern Ocean, global warming, population growth and industrial development in countries of the Southern Hemisphere will likely increase the impact of anthropogenic contaminants on Antarctic ecosystems.