Consuming freshwater fish caught in US lakes and rivers for one month is like drinking water contaminated with PFAS, the so-called “perpetual” pollutants, according to a new study published Tuesday, Jan.
These chemicals were developed in the 1940s to resist water and heat. They are found in non-stick coatings, textiles or food packaging.
But the non-destructive nature of these PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl, explains why they have accumulated over time in the air, soil, water of lakes and rivers, food and even the human body.
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Demand has grown for stricter regulation of the use of PFAS, which are known to be harmful to health, result in liver damage, high cholesterol, low immune response, and several types of cancer. The researchers wanted to measure freshwater fish contamination by analyzing 500 samples taken from US lakes and rivers between 2013 and 2015.
According to their study published in Environmental Research, the average contamination rate was 9.5 micrograms per kilogram. Of all the contaminated samples, three-quarters were PFOS, one of the most common and harmful pollutants among the thousands that make up PFAS.
278 times higher PFAS levels
Eating one freshwater fish is like drinking water contaminated with 48 parts per billion PFOS for a month. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its new recommendation, water is considered safe to drink if it contains no more than 0.2 parts per trillion of PFOS.
The levels of PFAS found in wild-caught freshwater fish were found to be 278 times higher than in commercially farmed fish.
Presence of “perpetual pollutants” in water “probably underestimated”
“I can’t look at a fish anymore without thinking about PFAS contamination,” David Andrews, a scientist at the NGO Environmental Working Group who led the study, told AFP.
This finding is “particularly concerning because of the implications it may have for disadvantaged communities consuming fish as a source of protein or for socio-cultural reasons”, he continued.
“This research makes me very angry because the companies that were manufacturing and using PFAS have polluted the world without taking responsibility.”
“The greatest chemical threat to the human species”
For Patrick Byrne, an environmental pollution researcher at the British University John Moores in Liverpool, PFAS are “probably the greatest chemical threat to the human species in the 21st century”.
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“This study is important because it provides the first evidence of widespread transmission of PFAS directly from fish to humans,” he said.
The study is published following an initiative by Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, which last Friday proposed a ban on the use of PFAS to the European Chemicals Agency.
The proposal follows five countries’ finding that the use of PFAS was not adequately regulated.