The Field Report: New Research Shows Dangerous Levels of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Freshwater Fish | Civil Eats

The Field Report: New Research Shows Dangerous Levels of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Freshwater Fish

Plus, climate-related farm and fishery disasters and farm bill season kicks off.

a fisherman pulls a largemouth bass that is probably polluted with PFAS from a freshwater lake

In a study published yesterday, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) included alarming news for people who consume fish from lakes and rivers across the country. According to their analysis, eating just one serving of freshwater fish could be equivalent to a full month of drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

While the data related to these “forever chemicals” isn’t new, Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the new paper, told Civil Eats that the new analysis is significant because it shows that “even infrequent consumption of freshwater fish can have a significant impact on PFAS serum levels.”

Companies have used and continue to use per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in a variety of products for decades. Dubbed forever chemicals for their persistence in the environment, most early attention on human exposure focused on drinking water. But contamination within the food system has become a more urgent concern. Farmers are finding their soils are contaminated due to past applications of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Last year, a Civil Eats investigation found three sources of PFAS in pesticides that are sprayed on crops around the country. And evidence has been mounting that PFAS in waterways have been building up in fish.

As sources of exposure in food become apparent, research on how PFAS affect human health has also been advancing. Studies have documented the harms—especially of PFOS, which has been one of the most commonly used PFAS—and found that exposure can damage liver function, thyroid function, and immune system response, and it is linked to many other health risks.

Based on the risks, the EPA updated its health advisory limit for PFOS in drinking water to .02 parts per trillion (ppt) in 2022. EWG’s analysis found that an average eight-ounce serving of freshwater fish would contain 1,934 nanograms of PFOS, which would be equivalent to a person drinking water contaminated with PFAS at 48 ppt—2,400 times the EPA advisory limit—for an entire month.

Data in the study came from the EPA’s testing of a variety of fish—including small- and largemouth bass, blue and channel catfish, and yellow perch—in the Great Lakes and in rivers and streams throughout the U.S. EWG’s researchers compared those results to the FDA’s test results on commercial seafood from grocery stores and found the median levels of PFAS in freshwater fish were 280 times greater than those found in some commercially caught and sold fish.

That’s good news for people who only eat fish they buy at the grocery store. But it also means, as Civil Eats’ previous reporting showed, that the burden of PFAS is falling squarely on communities that rely on freshwater fishing, including low-income and refugee communities.

“If a community heavily supplements their diet with locally caught freshwater fish for economic or cultural reasons, they are disproportionately affected by PFAS exposure compared to someone that only infrequently eats seafood purchased from the grocery store,” Stoiber said.

One limitation of the analysis is that the data on freshwater fish, which was the most recent available, comes from tests conducted between 2013 and 2015. Stoiber said future testing will reveal whether the numbers have changed in the years since and whether how fast water moves through rivers and streams versus through the Great Lakes plays a role in ongoing contamination.

One hint to date: Another new EPA analysis found one or more PFAS in 99.7 percent of freshwater fish samples in 2013–14 and 95.2 percent in 2018–19. So, while a small drop did occur, contamination was still nearly universal. According to the EPA website, 2020 testing data on fish from the Great Lakes is coming soon.

Given the number of sources and scale of contamination and the quantities of PFAS to which Americans have already been exposed, it’s unlikely there will be good news anytime soon.

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“The new guidance from EPA indicates that any additional exposure above what’s already in people’s blood is a cause for concern,” Stoiber said. “We are urging that industrial sources of PFAS discharged into the environment be reduced as much as possible, and anglers across the country should be provided with updated health protective guidance for fish consumption.”

Read More:
High Levels of PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Found in Fish
New Evidence Shows Pesticides Contain PFAS, and the Scale of Contamination Is Unknown
PFAS Are Contaminating the Food Supply

Farm disasters. Last year, elected officials spoke frequently about building more resilience into the food system, but 2023 is already off to a rocky start in terms of climate and other supply chain disasters. In addition to unprecedented rainfall that caused catastrophic flooding and destroyed farms and crops in California, Foster Farms said rail delays caused by extreme weather were preventing feed from reaching its West Coast poultry farms. The company warned the delays could cause the death of millions of chickens raised for meat, although the crisis was averted days later.

Meanwhile, supermarkets in some parts of the country were running out of eggs and charging surprisingly high prices for the eggs they had in stock. Experts said the disruptions and price hikes were caused by a confluence of factors, including the avian influenza outbreak that started last year. Still, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) started a debate on Twitter when he accused large egg brands including Eggland’s Best of profiteering, saying the company increased “profits by 65 percent last quarter to a record-breaking $198 million while doubling the price of eggs & reporting no positive cases of avian flu.”

Read More:
Op-Ed: Some Regenerative Farms Are Weathering California’s Unprecedented Rainfall
Op-Ed: We Should Build Back Better to Expand Climate Resilience
A Deadly Bird Flu Resurfaces

Fisheries face threats, too. Yesterday, Oregon’s lucrative Dungeness crab fishery opened a month late, with experts citing the climate crisis as a cause of this season’s delay and a threat to future seasons. Researchers are already studying how ocean acidification and rising water temperatures are affecting the health and population of these specific crabs, but the development comes after a year of climate-related disasters bedeviling fisheries around the country. In October, scientists declared warming waters a “key culprit” in a mass die-off of Alaska’s king and snow crabs, and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to expedite a disaster declaration for crab fisheries. A month earlier, Hurricane Ian devastated the shrimp fleet and production capacity in Southwest Florida and pummeled lobster traps off the Florida Keys after making landfall.

The acceleration of climate change’s impacts on fisheries raises questions about whether the typical federal disaster response will be adequate in the future. Unlike aid to farmers administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), disaster relief for fisheries is approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and then funded by Congress, and the money can take years to reach fishermen.

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Read More:
As a National Seafood Council Takes Shape, Whose Interests Will It Serve?
Fishermen Hope for Change as the Seafood Industry Faces a Crisis

Farm Bill kick-off. Conversations and negotiations leading up to the next farm bill were kept to a low simmer as the 2022 election played out. Now, with a new Congress in place, lawmakers in the House turned up the heat a notch and got to work. On Friday, House Ag Committee Chairman G.T. Thompson (R-PA) held his first “unofficial” farm bill listening session, which included talk of inflation, keeping the connection between nutrition programs and farm subsidies intact, and disagreements over an emphasis on climate. The Committee also announced its official roster, which included new members from Texas, New York, Iowa, and several other farm states. Then former House Ag Chairman David Scott (D-GA), now the ranking member, announced his priorities for the farm bill. They included expanding rural broadband, additional support for 1890 Land Grant universities, assisting small cattle farmers and ranchers, protecting SNAP, and helping producers manage climate-related farm impacts.

Read More:
Will the Next Farm Bill Move the Needle on Climate Action?
Native Farmers Push for More Equitable Training and Support in the Farm Bill

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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