Freshwater Fish Contaminated with Toxic Forever Chemicals in U.S.

Eating one serving of freshwater fish contaminated in the United States with toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS could be equivalent to drinking highly contaminated water every day for a month.

That’s according to a new peer-reviewed study by public health advocate Environmental Working Group (EWG) published in the journal Environmental Research. The study’s findings, which examined government data, are “breathtaking,” Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, told The Guardian.

What are PFAS?

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of at least 4,700 synthetic chemicals in commercial production since the 1940s to make surfaces resist stains, water and grease. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the human body or the environment.

They are all around us and nearly inescapable in our daily lives. They coat paper, food containers, dental floss, rugs, furniture, outdoor clothing, cookware, and cleaning products. People can be exposed to PFAS through contaminated drinking water, food, and air and through simple contact with commercial products made with the chemicals. PFAS move easily through air and water, quickly travel long distances, and accumulate in sediment, soil, and plants. They are also found in dust and food, including eggs, meat, milk, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.

PFAS concentrates in organs, tissues, and cells. Exposure has been linked to birth defects, developmental issues, infertility, cancer, liver damage, and thyroid disease. Researchers have also documented that PFAS exposure reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.

Fish Contain Toxic Chemicals 

The alarming findings in EWG’s study are based on an analysis of hundreds of fish caught by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2013. Nearly every fish tested by the EPA was tainted with forever chemicals.

“These findings point to the urgent need to eliminate more releases of these chemicals into the environment,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and one of the new study’s authors. “We don’t want this problem to get any worse, especially knowing how long it’s going to take for it to get better.”

Freshwater fish in the United States appear to be significantly more contaminated than seafood. The median concentration of forever chemicals in the EPA testing was 278 times higher than what the Food and Drug Administration found in saltwater fish, shrimp, lobster, clams, and oysters during the past four years.

The FDA tested commercially caught fish bought at grocery stores. The median levels of PFAS detected in wild-caught fish from streams and rivers were 280 times higher than those sold in grocery stores. Fish caught near urban areas typically had higher levels. The highest levels were found in several species of bass and catfish, while the lowest was in chinook and coho salmon.

EWG found at least 2,858 locations in all 50 states and two U.S. territories to be contaminated with PFAS. And the number is growing.

The findings show how widespread a problem PFAS has become, contaminating not only the water we drink but also the fish many of us eat, EWG said. Consuming fish laced with PFAS “is yet another way humans are exposed to chemicals long known to be catastrophically harmful to our health,” EWG said.

The group estimates that there may be over 40,000 industrial facilities contributing to the PFAS contamination problem. Manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills, wastewater treatment plants, airports, and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used are potential sources of PFAS.

“What’s needed is a swift and comprehensive federal strategy making it mandatory to turn off the tap of industrial PFAS pollution by encouraging cutting PFAS from the production of many everyday items, and ramp up efforts to better identify and reduce the extent of PFAS contamination in drinking water across the U.S.,” EWG said.

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