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Single fish serving may contain a month of forever chemicals

A new study led by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that consumption of just a single serving of freshwater fish per year could be equal to a month of drinking water contaminated with PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). This type of “forever chemical” is known to cause significant health issues, ranging from immune system suppression and increased cholesterol to reproductive and developmental problems, and increased risk of certain cancers. 

The findings suggest that strict regulations of PFOS and other forever chemicals (known collectively as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are urgently to safeguard particularly communities that depend on eating freshwater fish.

The scientists analyzed data from over 500 samples of fish fillets collected in the United States between 2013 and 2015 and found that the median level of total PFAS was 9,500 nanograms per kilogram, with a higher level in fish caught in the Great Lakes (11,800 nanograms per kilogram). These amounts are 280 times larger than forever chemicals detected in some commercially caught and sold fish, meaning that consuming a single meal of freshwater fish may lead to similar PFAS exposure as ingesting store-bought fish each day for a whole year.

“PFAS contaminate fish across the U.S., with higher levels in the Great Lakes and fish caught in urban areas,” said study co-author Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG. “PFAS do not disappear when products are thrown or flushed away. Our research shows that the most common disposal methods may end up leading to further environmental pollution.”

“People who consume freshwater fish, especially those who catch and eat fish regularly, are at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies,” added senior author David Andrews, a chemical scientist from the same organization. “Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish. But now when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination.”

According to the researchers, these high levels of forever chemicals in freshwater fish are caused by discharges from over 40,000 industrial polluters in the U.S., as well as from thousands of manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills, wastewater treatment plants, airports, and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used.

Since freshwater fish are an important source of protein for many people, PFAS contamination threatens those who cannot afford to buy commercial seafood, as well as communities that depend on fishing for sustenance, thus making exposure to forever chemicals in freshwater fish a textbook case of environmental injustice.

“Identifying sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health priority,” concluded Stoiber.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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