Forever chemicals: Freshwater fish study shows their surprising scale

A health emergency that nobody is talking about.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Salmon jumping on the river.
Salmon jumping on the river.

PerfectStills/iStock 

Forever chemicals are toxic substances that come as water-proof, grease-resistant, or non-stick coatings on numerous everyday items, including food packets, cosmetics, and smartphones. 

Continuous exposure of forever chemicals weakens the human immune system and leads to various health problems, including cancer. These harmful substances don't degrade inside the human body or in nature. Unfortunately, forever chemicals have become so widespread that now their traces can even be found in the blood of newborn infants.

They are chemically known as Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS). The most common type of forever chemicals is Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). A popular PFAS is Teflon which is coated on utensils to make them non-sticky. 

Generally, it is believed that people who eat packaged seafood are consuming more PFAS than those who hunt and eat aquatic animals directly from water bodies. However, it looks like this is not the case. 

A new shocking study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that whether you drink PFOS-infused water for one month straight or eat just one freshwater fish a year, your body will have the same amount of forever chemicals. 

These findings indicate that forever chemicals have penetrated so deep into our environment that now freshwater animals have higher amounts of PFOS in their bodies than even packaged food items. 

Lead researcher Nadia Barbo said in a press release, "The extent that PFAS has contaminated fish is staggering. There should be a single health protective fish consumption advisory for freshwater fish across the country." 

Freshwater fish is loaded with PFAS

EWG is a non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization that has been actively conducting PFAS-related studies. During one of their research works, the scientists at EWG examined 500 fish samples that were taken from different freshwater bodies in the US. 

Their study revealed that the average concentration of forever chemicals in fish filets stood at 9,500 nanograms per kilogram of the samples. In Great Lakes, the average concentration was even higher — 11,800 nanograms per kg. This clearly indicates that Great Lakes in urban areas are heavily polluted with PFAS.

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They compared this data with the amount of forever chemicals found in store-bought fish as per the FDA and US Environmental Protection Agency. The average PFAS concentration in freshwater fish was 280 times higher than what was measured in commercially sold fish. 

So basically, the amount of forever chemicals your body gets from eating store-bought fish every day for 365 days is the same as the PFAS you receive from consuming just one freshwater fish in a year. 

Based on their findings, the researchers also estimate that a single freshwater fish meal will give you the same amount of PFAS you get when you drink water containing forever chemicals at 48 parts per trillion for 30 days. 

"These test results are breathtaking. Eating one bass is equivalent to drinking PFOS-tainted water for a month," said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President at EWG. 

The dangers of PFAS-loaded fish

Eating fish that contain high PFAS concentrations can increase the risk of thyroid and kidney disorders, elevate blood cholesterol levels, undermine immune system functions, and make a person more susceptible to various types of cancers. 

Scientists at EWG have previously discovered that even small amounts of PFAS in drinking water can adversely affect reproductive health and vaccine efficiency in the human body. The results of the current study raise concerns about the health of communities that mainly consumes freshwater animals. 

"Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish. But now, when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination. 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, one of the authors and a scientist at EWG.

The authors suggest that freshwater fish may have gotten the PFAS from the trash that is thrown in the water bodies. The high concentration of forever chemicals in fish suggests that a lot of PFAS-containing waste is not disposed of carefully. According to EWG, about 200 million people in the US consume PFAS-contaminated water. 

While explaining this further, Faber said, "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." 

Faber argues that PFAS-contaminated water is putting the health of a large population at risk, and therefore pinpointing the sources of forever-chemical pollution should be considered an urgent public health priority.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.