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Fish caught in the freshwater of the nation’s major river streams and lakes contain dangerously high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate, short for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, a known industrial poison that the federal government has phased out, according to a study of data from the U.S. Environment Agency. protection agency.
The chemical PFOS is part of a family of manufactured additives known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and has been used extensively since the 1950s to make consumer products nonstick and resistant to stains, water damage and grease.
Called “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade easily in the environment, PFAS has seeped into the nation’s drinking water through public water systems and private wells. Experts say the chemicals then build up in the bodies of the fish, shellfish, livestock, dairy products and game animals that people eat.
“Levels of PFOS found in freshwater fish often exceeded 8,000 ppt,” said study co-author David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, the nonprofit environmental health organization that analyzed the data.
By comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed only 70 parts per trillion of PFOS in the nation’s drinking water. Because of growing health concerns, the EPA recommended in 2022 that the allowable level of perfluorooctane sulfonate in drinking water be lowered from 70 to 0.02 parts per trillion.
“You’d have to drink an incredible amount of water — estimate a month’s worth of polluted water — to get the same exposure you’d get from one serving of freshwater fish,” Andrews said.
‘Until you consume one (locally caught freshwater) Each year, fish can significantly alter PFOS levels in the blood.
Chemicals in the PFAS family They are linked to high cholesterol, cancer, and various chronic diseases, as well as a limited antibody response to vaccines in both adults and children, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“This is an important paper,” said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
“Finding this level of contamination in fish all over the country, even in areas not close to industry where you might expect severe contamination, is very concerning. These chemicals are everywhere,” she said.
Read more: Doctors should test PFAS levels in people at high risk, according to the report
Experts say PFAS is nearly impossible to avoid. Manufacturers The chemicals have been added to thousands of products, including non-stick cookware, cell phones, carpeting, clothing, makeup, furniture, and food packaging.
A 2020 investigation found that PFAS in many fast food packaging and fiberglass bowls and containers is “environmentally friendly”.
A 2021 study found PFAS in 52% of cosmetics tested, with the highest levels in waterproof mascara (82%), foundation (63%) and long-wear lipstick (62%). Polytetrafluoroethylene, the coating on non-stick pans, was the most common additive.
Read more: Study finds makeup may contain potentially toxic chemicals called PFAS
In fact, PFAS chemicals are found in the blood serum of 98% of Americans, according to a 2019 report using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
These chemicals are ubiquitous in the American environment. More than 2,800 communities in the United States, including all 50 states and two territories, have documented PFAS contamination,” Dr. Ned Calonge, associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and chair of the committee of academies that wrote the report, previously told CNN.
Read more: Dangerous chemicals found in food wrappers at major fast food restaurants and grocery chains, according to report
Scientists at the Environmental Working Group used data from EPA’s monitoring programs—the National Rivers and Streams Assessment, which has been periodically testing stream conditions since 2008, and the Great Lakes Fish Fillet Tissue Study for Human Health, which tests lake waters every five years.
“The analysis focused on fish caught by the EPA in rivers and streams and throughout the Great Lakes region from 2013 to 2015, as this was the most recent data available,” Andrews said.
The contamination was widespread, he said, affecting “nearly every fish across the country”. “I think there was one sample that wasn’t detected for PFOS levels.”
The EWG has created an interactive results map with details for each state. The study found that fish caught near urban areas contained nearly three times more PFOS and PFAS in general than those caught in non-urban locations. The highest levels are found in fish of the Great Lakes.
Analysis showed that PFOS is responsible for an average of 74% of contamination in fish. The remaining 25 percent, Andrews said, is a mixture of other PFAS known to be equally harmful to human health.
CNN has reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency for comment, but did not hear back before this story was published.
Based on the study results, people who fish for sport “aggressively” might consider releasing their catch rather than taking the fish home for a meal, Andrews said.
However, many people in lower socioeconomic groups and indigenous and immigrant populations in the United States depend on eating fresh fish.
“They need it for food or because it’s their culture,” Birnbaum said. “There are Native American tribes, Burmese immigrants, and others who hunt because that’s who they are. That’s key to their culture. And you can’t just tell them not to hunt.”
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The predominant chemical in fish, perfluorooctane sulfonate, and its sibling perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, are known as “long-chain” PFAS, made from an 8-carbon chain.
Read more: Plastics and pesticides: The health effects of synthetic chemicals in US products have doubled in the past five years, study finds
Manufacturers In the early 2000s she agreed to stop using voluntarily PFAS is long-chain in US consumer products, although it can still be found in some imported items. Due to growing health concerns, the use of PFOS and PFOA in food packaging was phased out in 2016 by the US Food and Drug Administration.
However, the industry reformulated the chemicals by converting them into 4- and 6-carbon chains — today there are more than 9,000 different PFAS, according to the CDC. Experts say these newer versions contain much of the same Serious health effects as 8-chain PFAS, leaving consumers and the environment at risk.
Many of these long chain PFAS can be stored for years in various organs in the human body, according to the National Academies report. Scientists are studying the impact of newer releases.
“Some of these chemicals have half-lives in the five-year range,” Jane Houben, M.D., a National Academies report panel member, environmental epidemiologist and director of the Center for Human and Environmental Health at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, previously told CNN. .
Read more: The FDA should do more to regulate the thousands of chemicals added to your food, petitioners say
“Let’s say you have 10 nanograms of PFAS in your body right now. Even with no additional exposure, five years from now you’ll have 5 nanograms,” he says. “Five years later, you’ll have 2.5 and then five years after that, you’ll have 1.25 nanograms. It’ll take It’s about 25 years before all of your PFAS leave your body.”
That’s why it’s “not surprising” to find such high levels of PFOA in freshwater fish, said the director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who was not involved in the new study. .
“These are really forever chemicals,” Trasande said. “This reinforces the fact that we need to get all PFAS out of consumer products and people’s lives.”