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EPA Detects “Staggering” Levels of Toxic Chemicals in US Freshwater Fish

toxic chemicals in Freshwater fish
EPA Detects ”Staggering” Levels of Toxic Chemicals in US Freshwater Fish. Credit: PINKE / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Using data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), researchers found that fish collected in the nation’s streams, rivers, and the Great Lakes contain alarmingly high amounts of toxic chemicals known as PFOS or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a synthetic poison that the federal government has banned.

Since their introduction in the 1950s, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl synthetic chemicals (PFAS), have been widely utilized for non-stick properties and resistance to stains, water, and grease on a broad variety of consumer products.

Since they do not dissolve in water or soil, PFAS have been given the nickname “forever chemicals.”

They have made their way into the water supply of the United States through both public and private sources. According to experts, the toxins eventually make their way into the food chain when they accumulate in the bodies of fish, shellfish, cattle, dairy, and game animals.

“The levels of PFOS found in freshwater fish often exceeded an astounding 8,000 parts per trillion,” said study coauthor David Andrews, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, the nonprofit environmental health organization that analyzed the data. Environmental Research, the environmental health and environmental science journal in which the study appeared, released the findings on Wednesday.

The maximum possible level of PFOS in U.S. drinking water is seventy parts per trillion, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA proposed a reduction in the maximum PFOS concentration in drinking water from 70 ppt to 0.02 ppt in 2022 in view of growing health concerns.

Difficult to avoid contact with PFAS

Experts claim that avoiding contact with PFAS is extremely difficult. Thousands of items, including non-stick cookware, mobile phones, carpets, clothes, cosmetics, furniture, and food packaging, contain chemicals added by manufacturers.

Many fast food containers and “eco-friendly” molded fiber bowls and trays were discovered to have PFAS in a 2020 examination.

Research conducted in 2021 revealed that fifty-two percent of cosmetics included PFAS, with the largest concentrations being reported in waterproof mascara (82 percent), foundations (63 percent), and long-lasting lipstick. The most often used ingredient was polytetrafluoroethylene, the material used to cover non-stick cookware.

Reports from the government

The Environmental Working Group used information gathered from two of the EPA’s own monitoring programs, the 2015 Great Lakes Human Health Fish Fillet Tissue Study, and the National Rivers and Streams Assessment (NRSA). The latter has been conducting periodic tests of stream conditions since 2008, while the former conducts studies every five years.

“The analysis focused on EPA wild-caught fish in rivers, streams, and throughout the Great Lakes from 2013 to 2015 as that was the latest data available,” Andrews said.

The contamination was widespread, impacting “nearly every fish across the country,” he said. “I believe there was one sample without detected levels of PFOS.”

Results for each state are broken out in an interactive map produced by the EWG. The study indicated that the level of PFOS and total PFAS in fish captured near urban regions was roughly three times higher than that observed in fish caught in nonurban areas. Fish caught in the Great Lakes had the greatest concentrations of these chemicals.


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