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Fish caught in the fresh waters of the nation’s streams and rivers and the Great Lakes contain dangerously high levels of PFOS, short for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, a known synthetic toxin phased out by the federal government. according to a study of data from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The chemical PFOS is part of a family of manufactured additives known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFASwidely used since the 1950s to make consumer products non-stick and resistant to stains, water and grease damage.
Called “permanent chemicals” because they fail to break down easily in the environment, PFAS seep into the nation’s drinking water through public water systems and private wells. The chemicals then accumulate in the bodies of fish, shellfish, livestock, dairy animals and game that people eat, experts say.
“The levels of PFOS found in freshwater fish often exceed an astounding 8,000 parts per trillion,” said study co-author David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, the environmental nonprofit that analyzed the data. The report was published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research.
By comparison, the EPA has only allowed 70 parts per trillion of PFOS in the nation’s drinking water. Due to growing health concerns, in 2022 EPA recommends the permissible level of PFOS in drinking water to be reduced from 70 to 0.02 parts per trillion.
“You would have to drink an incredible amount of water — we estimate a month of contaminated water — to get the same exposure as one serving of freshwater fish,” Andrews said.
“Consuming even one (locally caught fresh water) fish per year can measurably and significantly change the levels of PFOS in your blood,” Andrews said.
Chemicals in the PFAS family are associated with high cholesterol, cancer, and various chronic diseases, as well as limited antibody responses to vaccines in both adults and children, according to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“This is an important paper,” said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
“Finding this level of contamination in fish across the country, even in areas that are not close to industry where one would expect heavy contamination, is very concerning. These chemicals are everywhere,” she said.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid PFAS, experts say. Manufacturers add the chemicals to thousands of products, including non-stick cookware, cell phones, carpets, clothing, makeup, furniture, and food packaging.
A Investigation in 2020 found PFAS in the packaging of many fast food restaurants and “environmentally friendly” molded fiber bowls and containers.
A 2021 study found PFAS in 52% of cosmetics tested, with the highest rates for waterproof mascara (82%), foundation (63%) and long-wear lipstick (62%). Polytetrafluoroethylene, the coating on non-stick pans, was the most common additive.
In fact, PFAS chemicals are found in the blood serum of 98% of Americans, according to a 2019 report using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
“These chemicals are ubiquitous in the American environment. More than 2,800 US communities, including all 50 states and two territories, have documented PFAS contamination,” Dr. Ned Calonge, associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and chair of the academies committee, wrote the report. told CNN earlier.
Environmental Working Group scientists used data from the EPA’s own monitoring programs – the National River and Stream Assessmentwhich has periodically tested flow conditions since 2008, and Human health study of fish fillets in the Great Lakeswhich tests the lake water every five years.
“The analysis focused on EPA wild-caught fish in rivers, streams and in the Great Lakes from 2013 to 2015 because that was the most recent data available,” Andrews said.
The contamination is widespread and affects “almost every fish in the entire country,” he said. “I believe there was one sample with no detectable levels of PFOS.”
The EWG created interactive results map with details for each state. Fish caught near urban areas contained nearly three times more PFOS and PFAS in general than those caught in non-urban locations, the study found. The highest levels were found in fish from the Great Lakes.
The analysis showed that PFOS accounted for an average of 74% of the contamination in the fish. The remaining 25 percent is a mixture of other PFASs known to be equally harmful to human health, Andrews said.
CNN reached out to the EPA for comment but did not hear back prior to publication of this story.
Based on the study’s findings, people who fish for sport may “strongly” consider releasing their catch instead of taking the fish home to eat, Andrews said.
Yet many people in lower socioeconomic groups, native populations, and immigrants to the US rely on eating freshly caught fish.
“They need it for food or because it’s their culture,” Birnbaum said. “There are Native American tribes and Burmese immigrants and others who fish because that’s who they are. This is key to their culture. And you can’t just tell them not to fish.
The predominant chemical in fish, PFOS, and its sister perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, are known as “long-chain” PFASs, made of an 8-carbon chain.
Manufacturers agreed in the early 2000s to voluntarily stop using long-chain PFASs in American consumer products, although they can still be found in some imported items. Due to growing health concerns, the use of PFOS and PFOA in food packaging was restricted discontinued in 2016 from the US Food and Drug Administration.
However, industry has reengineered the chemicals by making them into 4- and 6-carbon chains—there are over 9,000 different PFASs in existence today. According to the CDC. Experts say these newer versions seem to have a lot of the same dangerous health effects like 8-chain PFAS, leaving consumers and the environment still at risk.
Many of these long-chain PFASs can be stored for years in various organs in the human body, according to the National Academies report. Scientists are studying the impact of newer versions.
“Some of these chemicals have half-lives on the order of five years,” reports National Academy committee member Jane Hoppin, an environmental epidemiologist and director of the Center for Human Health and the Environment at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. told CNN earlier.
“Let’s say you have 10 nanograms of PFAS in your body right now. Even without additional exposure, five years from now you’ll still have 5 nanograms,” she said. “Five years later you’ll have 2.5 and then five years after that you’ll have one 1.25 nanogram. It will take about 25 years for all PFAS to leave your body.
That’s why it’s not surprising to find such high levels of PFOA in freshwater fish, said director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who was not involved in the new study.
“These are truly ‘forever chemicals,'” Trasande said. “This reinforces the reality that we need to remove all PFAS from consumer products and people’s lives.”
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