Editor’s Note: Plastic is not found in nature, so no microorganisms evolved to break it down completely. Microplastics are often too small to pick up or even notice, but they are everywhere: in the air, dust, and rain. They have been found in placentas and breast milk, and they appear especially abundant in baby poop— 10 times more than in adult feces. Plastic is a toxin and pollutant that is a byproduct of the production of fossil fuel manufacturing. People never asked for plastics, they were forced on us by industry. Eighty years ago there was no plastic in the stores. Today you would be hard pressed to find a product that is not covered in plastic. Deemed the “greatest thing since sliced bread,” plastic has brought convenience at a terrible cost. We have saturated the planet with a material that does not biologically break down, forever plastics. An EWG study shows the astounding level of PFAS in freshwater fish.
By The Environmental Working Group (EWG)
PFAS found at high levels in freshwater fish, with most concern for vulnerable communities
WASHINGTON – A new study by Environmental Working Group scientists finds that consumption of just a single serving of freshwater fish per year could be equal to a month of drinking water laced with the “forever chemical” PFOS at high levels that may be harmful.
Researchers calculated that eating one fish in a year equated to ingesting water with PFOS at 48 parts per trillion, or ppt, for one month.
The study bolsters EWG’s long-running calls for strict regulation of PFOS and the other toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, in addition to more tests of food such as fish, since diet is thought to be a major source of PFAS exposure for Americans. The findings are a particular issue for communities with environmental justice concerns, whose survival often depends on eating freshwater fish they’ve caught.
EWG found the median amounts of PFAS in freshwater fish were an astounding 280 times greater than forever chemicals detected in some commercially caught and sold fish. The testing data, from the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, showed that consuming a single meal of freshwater fish could lead to similar PFAS exposure as ingesting store-bought fish every day for a year.
“People who consume freshwater fish, especially those who catch and eat fish regularly, are at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist and one of the study’s lead authors. “Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish. But now when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination.”
The forever chemical found at greatest concentrations in freshwater fish was PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, averaging roughly three in four of total PFAS detections.
“These test results are breathtaking,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Eating one bass is equivalent to drinking PFOS-tainted water for a month.”
Consumption of PFOS-contaminated freshwater fish can cause significant increases in people’s blood serum levels of the forever chemical, creating potential health risks. Even infrequent consumption of freshwater fish can raise PFOS levels in the body.
“The extent that PFAS has contaminated fish is staggering,” said Nadia Barbo, a graduate student at Duke University and lead researcher on this project. “There should be a single health protective fish consumption advisory for freshwater fish across the country.”
The researchers analyzed data from more than 500 samples of fish fillets collected in the U.S. from 2013 to 2015 under monitoring programs by the EPA, the National Rivers and Streams Assessment and the Great Lakes Human Health Fish Fillet Tissue Study. The median level of total PFAS in fish fillets was 9,500 nanograms per kilogram, with a median level of 11,800 nanograms per kilogram in the Great Lakes.
“PFAS contaminate fish across the U.S., with higher levels in the Great Lakes and fish caught in urban areas,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., an EWG senior scientist and another co-author. “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.”
Freshwater fish are an important source of protein for many people, and PFAS contamination threatens those who cannot afford to purchase commercial seafood. Communities that depend on fishing for sustenance and for traditional cultural practices are inordinately harmed. This makes exposure to chemical pollutants in freshwater fish a textbook case of environmental injustice.
“Identifying sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health priority,” said Stoiber.
“Forever chemicals” in freshwater fish
Drinking water systems across the U.S. are contaminated with “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The presence of these toxic chemicals in water is known to harm humans who are exposed to them.
The widespread contamination of fish in rivers and streams across the country further emphasizes the need to end industrial discharges of PFAS.
EWG estimates there may be more than 40,000 industrial polluters of PFAS in the U.S. Tens of thousands of manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills and wastewater treatment plants, airports, and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used are potential sources of PFAS discharges into surface water.
This contamination of water has spread PFAS to soil, crops and wildlife, including fish.
“For decades, polluters have dumped as much PFAS as they wanted into our rivers, streams, lakes and bays with impunity. We must turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from industrial discharges, which affect more and more Americans every day,” said EWG’s Faber.
Testing fish for PFAS
The EPA and the FDA test differently to detect PFAS in fish. The EPA uses what’s known as draft Method 1633 to test for up to 40 PFAS compounds in fish tissue, as well as in wastewater, surface water, groundwater, soil, biosolids, sediment and the liquid that forms when waste breaks down in landfills.
National EPA tests show nearly all fish in U.S. rivers and streams are contaminated with PFAS in the parts-per-billion range – even greater than parts per trillion. Although the most recent test results found decreasing PFAS levels, freshwater fish are still contaminated at high levels.
The FDA improved its scientific method to test for 20 different PFAS compounds. Its approach is used to test seafood samples, as well as processed foods. In its 2022 survey of seafood, the FDA found much lower levels of PFAS in seafood from grocery stores. The median levels of total PFAS detected by the EPA were 280 times higher than levels in commercially sold fish tested by the FDA.
PFAS are among the most persistent compounds in existence, contaminating everything from drinking water to food, food packaging and personal care products. PFAS build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment. They are found in the blood of virtually everyone, including newborn babies.
Very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to suppression of the immune system, including reduced vaccine efficacy, and an increased risk of certain cancers. PFAS are linked with increased cholesterol, reproductive and developmental problems and other health harms.
More than 200 million Americans could be drinking water contaminated with PFAS. The problem is likely worse than has already been confirmed, further underscoring the need for swift regulatory action.
“The EPA needs to move swiftly to set regulations for the industries most likely to be dumping PFAS into the environment. Downstream communities especially have suffered the consequences of unregulated PFAS discharges for far too long,” added Faber.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.
Featured image: “Wonder Bread, 1961 – Advertising Postcard” by Shook Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
I was literally the first person to address this over 30 years ago and filed lawsuits to stop it that lasted 20 years. PCBs bind to microplastic and has displaced plankton as the beginning of the ocean’s food chain. Plankton sequesters most of our CO2 and converts it to most of our oxygen and food for fish, cows, pigs, chickens, pets, and people. Yes, people. we eat it, breathe it, drink it, it’s in our unborn children. It could have been fixed but industry and the government spent millions to allow it.
The only proper way to “fix” this would have been to leave oil in the ground where it belongs. THAT’s the problem, all else is byproduct results.
The “editor’s note” says, “People didn’t ask for plastic, it was forced on us by industry.”
So, who does “Editor” think industry is, if not people? I don’t see warthogs or baboons going to work in factories!
I concluded awhile ago that the 20th century put an end to life on Earth, though the full effects are only being seen in the 21st, with our “mass extinction.”
Among other environmental horror stories, I’ve read that industry (those non-warthogs and baboons again!) introduced over 80,000 chemicals into the environment during the 20th century — with almost none of them being tested for long-term health effects. And you can bet those 80,000 include PFAS.
I’ve also read that there is now more plastic than plankton in seawater samples, taken from the upper 18 inches of Pacific waters. That being the case, how could seafood be less contaminated than freshwater — or is the end of life on Earth just a matter of degrees?
Think about the 20th century: Prior to it, we had no aircraft at all, and few motor vehicles (except for ships and trains, with those massive black clouds of exhaust smoke, we remember from old movies).
The 20th century also gave us communications networks, air conditioning, a global power grid, electronics, nuclear fission, weapons of mass destruction, and a human population that increased from 1.6 billion to six billion-plus — almost all of them/us demanding more of the wonders of civilization (a cancer widely known as “progress”). Without industrial humanoids, life might have gone on here for billions of years.
So, what was the highest evolutionary achievement of life on Earth, as it races toward oblivion in the 21st century?
Some of my favorites are redwoods, giraffes, aspens, geese, seaweeds, skinks, salmon, meerkats, tumbleweeds, and those previously mentioned baboons. (My rabbit and I are also big fans of apple trees and broccoli.)
Imagine all the other, magical species that might have evolved here, if not for that one, biped species, that used its front legs to grab things, and had to have “more.”
Imagine a world without grabbers!
Doing things, like making plastic, for human convenience or other benefit, at the expense of the Earth and all the life here, is what humans do. That’s why I’ve said all along that the only real solution to problems like this is for humans to greatly evolve mentally and spiritually. Absent that, humans will just continue destroying and killing.
The more we are in touch with our selfs the more we are in touch with others and nature.Living life consciously we move in step with nature and more toward our true spot in the river of life. Surfers don’t make the waves they just ride them!
I forgot to mention the following, sorry for multiple posts:
I remember when scientists announced that they had found PCBs in POLAR BEARS. That was decades ago, and I realized then that humans had polluted the entire planet, because polar bears don’t live near PCBs. We and other terrestrial mammals now have plastic INSIDE of us, as plastic microparticles are in the air we breathe and we can’t avoid them. The message should just be that everything on Earth is polluted with unnatural human crap, and that we need to radically change our lifestyles to reverse this. I suppose we can list each individual problem like this, hopefully it will drive the point home even harder, but to be honest I’m not much for details and would rather focus on the bigger more fundamental problems, which are our lifestyles and our overpopulation.
I started working on this in the late seventies. I was a pesticide applicator when I realized that we were not thinking out further than the end of our nose. I became an advocate, and started researching how biological processes might capture the toxicity, giving us a way to extract contaminants from the environment. My research was pretty much ignored.