A new study by the Environmental Working Group, an activist group focused on research, revealed that eating a single freshwater fish is equal to drinking water with high PFAS levels for a month.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are a group of thousands of toxic chemicals used in hundreds of different products. In Florida, at least 47 facilities have been found to be sources of PFAS. Twenty-three of these are military bases.
“This stuff is in everything,” said Suwannee Riverkeeper John Quarterman.
In fact, PFAS compounds can be found even in the most remote regions of the globe.
The study also compared its findings to another data set from the FDA that measured PFAS levels in seafood from grocery stores. The supermarket samples had a drastically lower concentration of PFAS compounds than freshwater fish.
Other common contamination sites are firefighting schools. Soil samples from the Florida State Fire College 196 in Ocala contained around 200 million ppm of PFAS.
The likely source: firefighting foam.
But PFAS can be found in products such as Teflon pans, rain gear, waterproof makeup, fast food packaging, biosolids used in agriculture, and most recently, in a new line of menstrual underwear made by the company Thinx.
The most notorious and studied compound is perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, also known as PFOS, and according to the EWG study, it accounted for 75% of the PFAS compounds found in freshwater fish.
“We’re concerned about these chemicals because they have been linked to numerous health harms including several different types of cancers,” said Tasha Stoiber, EWG senior scientist and co-author of the paper.
These compounds can affect the human immune system at very low levels, which impacts antibody levels in response to vaccinations or how well people can fight off infections, she said. People’s livers, kidneys and reproductive organs are also at risk.
PFAS chemicals that were phased out decades ago can still be found in fish and other wildlife, and current wastewater processing techniques are not designed to filter them out.
“It just passes right through,” Quarterman said.
As a result, these chemicals can build up in natural environments by leaching from landfills and into rivers or other waterways. Then, they stick to proteins in vegetation, such as seagrass, which is then consumed by fish, which are then eaten by larger fish, and so on, until they get caught and consumed by humans. It is important to note that fish lower in the food chain can still contain high concentrations of PFAS.
Fishermen and families who eat freshwater fish as a primary source of food are undoubtedly at risk. According to researchers from the University of Florida, the problem could extend to estuarine and saltwater fish as well.
Katherine Deliz, a UF lecturer and research assistant professor, studies the effects that weather events, such as floods, can have on PFAS concentrations in coastal Florida communities. Although the results of her studies are not yet finalized, she said she believes that they’ll see high levels of PFAS compounds in estuarine and saltwater fish, like the speckled trout and the mangrove snapper that live in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.
Her study will test 120 PFAS compounds, as opposed to EWG’s paper, which only tested 13. The study will test fish fillets, the part humans consume to estimate potential exposure to humans.
Another aspect of their research will be communicating their findings with the Brevard County community, giving them the opportunity to ask questions regarding their concerns.
But data is lacking, said Stoiber. Specifically, toxicological analysis of PFAS. More work needs to be done to identify who are the high-frequency fish consumers and how they are being impacted, she said.
In 2018, the EPA released a guideline for eating fish based on mercury levels, heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic compounds. However, they have yet to release guidelines for eating fish based on PFAS chemicals.
Under the Biden-Harris administration, the EPA has proposed several measures to address the toxic contaminants, but they have yet to be enforced. These measures should have been in place decades ago, but it is encouraging to see they are making some headway, said Stoiber.
State-level advisories have been issued in 14 states, but there is no national guidance based on the most recent available data. Florida is not one of these 14 states, she said.
“The thing that’s so difficult about this is that it’s not a problem that can be solved on the individual level,” Stoiber said. “What’s needed is regulatory action and phase-out of all of these nonessential uses of PFAS.”
She clarified “essential uses” would mean very small quantities in critical products, unlike the indiscriminate use in consumer products we see today.
Despite stagnant federal action, there have been slight decreases in PFOS concentrations overall as a result of voluntary phase-outs, says Stoiber. However, replacement PFAS chemicals continue to be used, and their health effects are similar.
For Quarterman, the inaction from the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is a result of decades of defunding. He is also concerned with the state of Florida politics.
“I mean, if there was political direction, why is there a red tide every summer?” he asked.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, a board member of Our Santa Fe River, a water quality advocacy group, said she is also disappointed at the lack of urgency the state has regarding PFAS. Her skepticism is rooted in the past.
In April 2012, the DOH refused to close the Santa Fe River after high levels of cyanobacteria were detected. At the time, the fumes from the river were so toxic, people living riverside had to move temporarily.
During her time in advocacy, she’s seen the state violate its own statutes.
“And yet, somehow they prevail,” he said.
She said the solution requires grassroots organizing and public outreach to warn local fishermen about the hazards of eating freshwater fish. Whether they pay attention is their choice, she said.
“If we don’t tell them I think we’re doing a disservice,” she said.
Even if groups like OSFR warn local fishermen, people like 64-year-old Michael Catanzaro doubt the efficacy of doing so.
Catanzaro, who’s been living in Florida for the past 38 years, has seen the environmental degradation coastal communities have endured as a professional charter captain and fisherman.
As long as the water appears to be clean and odor-free, people will continue to visit parks and waterways, Catanzaro said.
“They really won’t think too much of it because most of what’s going on is going on below the surface,” he said.
As a captain, he said he tries his best to educate visitors on the dangers of saltwater intrusion and things that affect the Chassahowtizka estuary. Unfortunately, visitors don’t seem concerned about it, he said.
“The very thing that sold [Florida] is the very thing that will kill it,” he said.
Catanzaro said he can’t help but be disappointed with the state of the natural environment, but as a man in his 60s, he said he enjoys whatever beauty remains.
As for younger generations, Catanzaro remains unsure about what they can do.
“If we can bring awareness to these issues,” he said, “we might be able to make some corrections or somehow reduce the speed at which things are deteriorating.”