Fish in lakes and streams in the US have been contaminated with dangerous “forever chemicals.”
A map of documented contamination sites shows how PFAS contamination is everywhere.
Eating fish from a local lake can be the equivalent of drinking PFAS-contaminated water for a month.
Eating fish from a local lake or river can give you a giant dose of dangerous “forever chemicals,” equivalent to about a month of drinking highly polluted water, researchers say.
Since their invention in the 1930s, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have proliferated and spread. People have created thousands of substances in the PFAS grade, as their resistance to water and heat makes them useful in everyday products such as food packaging and clothing.
However, studies in recent years have revealed that PFAS is harmful to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to certain cancers, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, developmental delays, liver damage, high cholesterol, and decreased immune responses.
Worse still, PFAS is just floating around and piling up. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t really break down. They’re now in soil, food, water, clothing, and even the dust in your home. A recent analysis found that precipitation across the entire planet contains unsafe levels of PFAS.
So it’s not surprising that these substances fill US waterways and can accumulate in fish’s bodies. Eating a fish can give you a concentrated dose of chemicals that will last a lifetime.
The problem is widespread throughout the US. The Environmental Working Group has created a map of more than 500 fish samples contaminated with PFAS below. The examples cover all 48 contiguous states.
An interactive version of the map on the EWG website includes details about each site.
The map is based on EPA data from 2013 to 2015, when the agency tested more than 500 fish samples from freshwater sources in the United States.
EWG researchers published their analysis of this data Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research. They found that PFOS, one of the most notorious substances, made the biggest contributor to PFAS contamination in fish.
Eating just one freshwater fish could equal a month’s worth of drinking water contaminated with 48 parts per trillion of PFOS, according to EWG researchers’ calculations. Last year, the EPA lowered the level of PFOS in drinking water, which it considers safe, to 0.02 parts per trillion.
“Finding this level of contamination in fish across the country is very worrying, even in areas not close to industry where you can expect heavy pollution. These chemicals are everywhere,” said Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. and the National Toxicology Program told CNN.
PFAS is everywhere, making planet ‘somewhat uninhabitable’
Some places, like Wisconsin, in 2021, when the state warned people not to eat the smell from Lake Superior more than once a month, even issued recommendations about PFAS contamination in fish.
However, states do not always detect or warn people about PFAS contamination in their fish. So taking your fishing line to the local river may be riskier than you think.
“When we start to get really worried about using our environmental resources, it really pisses me off and pisses me off,” Ian Cousins, who leads the analysis of PFAS levels in rainwater, told Insider in August.
He also said he’s seen PFAS contamination warnings for fishing spots in Sweden, where he lives.
“We’ve made the planet a bit uninhabitable,” he added.
The new EWG study found that the median total PFAS level in freshwater fish was 278 times higher than in commercially available fish tested in the past three years.
While it’s probably impossible to completely avoid PFAS, it can be helpful to know how to cut back on the little things that contain large doses, such as certain fish in certain waterways.
While the EPA’s strict new guidelines for PFOS and its equally infamous cousin, PFOA, are not currently enforceable, the agency is working to clean up some of the nation’s most polluted drinking water.
The 2021 Infrastructure Act set aside $5 billion for this effort.
Correction: January 19, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misreported the number of PFAS-contaminated fish samples on the map. There are more than 500 documented fish specimens.
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