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PFAS crisis: Humans are an early warning system for wildlife impacts

In a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), researchers have proposed a compelling concept: humans can act as a crucial benchmark for understanding the repercussions of the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS on wildlife.

The human connection

PFAS, due to their persistent nature, do not just affect humans but also a broad spectrum of species worldwide. 

Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG, emphasized that humans act as an “early warning system” to comprehend how these chemicals might influence wildlife in their natural habitats.

“PFAS pollution is not just a problem for humans,” said Dr. Andrews. “It’s a problem for species across the globe. This new paper delves into how humans serve as an early warning system for understanding how PFAS may impact other living creatures in the environment.”

Forever chemicals

Studies have associated forever chemicals with a number of adverse effects in both humans and laboratory animals. 

These range from immune system damage, reproductive and fetal development disruptions, hormone imbalances, to heightened cancer risks. 

Data collection

Notably, EWG’s research methods allow for the collection of data without causing harm to animals, especially the endangered ones.

Ken Cook, president of EWG, emphasized their 25-year battle against PFAS contamination. 

“EWG researchers have analyzed scientific studies, conducted our own investigations, and plotted where people are exposed to toxic PFAS,” said Cook. 

“Now we’ve shown that humans might signal how these toxic chemicals affect the bodies of polluted animals in almost every corner of the world.”

Global crisis

Endangered animals, already grappling with challenges like pollution, habitat erosion, and exploitation, now face the menace of PFAS. The global impact of the PFAS crisis is substantial. 

“The PFAS crisis is global,” said Dr. Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG. “Like humans, wildlife are exposed to multiple PFAS at a time, through the diet, air, water and soil, highlighting the need to tackle these persistent and toxic chemicals as a class.”

Wildlife threats 

Recent studies have shown alarming effects of PFAS on species like the North Carolina alligators and sea turtles in the north Pacific. 

The research on alligators showed that elevated levels of PFAS were associated with higher occurrences of skin lesions, as well as wounds that did not heal properly and became infected.

The study on sea turtles demonstrated that animals are vulnerable to the effects of PFAS exposure at every stage, from their eggs to immune systems.

PFAS wildlife map

EWG’s updated wildlife map, capturing over 200 peer-reviewed studies, now documents more than 120 unique PFAS compounds found in 625 animal species. 

The interactive map showcases a variety of animals, from amphibians and fish to large mammals like polar bears. 

“The wildlife map is not an exhaustive catalog of all animal studies but mostly those published in the past few years,” said Dr. Andrews.

“PFAS are ubiquitous, and this first-of-its-kind map clearly captures the extent to which PFAS have contaminated wildlife around the globe.”

Lingering effects 

The persistence of PFAS in the body and environment is troubling. With these chemicals found in almost everyone, including infants, the health implications cannot be ignored. 

PFAS exposure has been connected to various health issues in humans, such as weakened immune systems and heightened cancer risks.

PFAS’s widespread use, found in consumer goods ranging from cosmetics and food packaging to firefighting foams, underscores the massive challenge of addressing this contamination.

Call for action

Dr. Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG, warns that current methods of PFAS disposal might lead to even more pollution, with the consequences echoing throughout the food chain. She calls for immediate action to halt all non-essential PFAS applications.

“Our research found that the most common methods we have for getting rid of PFAS may end up leading to further pollution,” said Dr. Stoiber. 

“And we can expect that contamination to ripple through the food chain, potentially affecting even more species, including humans.” 

“Our choice is either to keep polluting the planet or take immediate action to stop all nonessential uses of PFAS.” 

Industrial pollution

According to the experts, considering the health risks associated with PFAS exposure, it is important to try to minimize exposure wherever possible.

“We need to accelerate – not delay – efforts to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from industrial sources,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

“For decades, polluters have with impunity dumped as much PFAS as they wanted into our air, rivers, streams, lakes and bays.”

“The Biden Environmental Protection Agency must move faster and not rely on cash-strapped state regulators to turn off the tap.”

The research is published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

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