Eating one freshwater fish caught in a river or lake in the United States is equivalent to drinking water contaminated with toxic “permanent chemicals,” a new study said Tuesday.
The invisible chemicals, called PFASs, were first developed in the 1940s to resist water and heat, and are now used in items such as nonstick pans, textiles, firefighting foam and food packaging.
But the indestructibility of PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, means that the pollutants accumulate over time in air, soil, lakes, rivers, food, drinking water, and even in our bodies.
There are growing calls for tougher regulation of PFAS, which have been linked to a range of serious health problems, including liver damage, high cholesterol, reduced immune responses and several cancers.
To investigate PFAS contamination in local fish, a team of researchers analyzed more than 500 samples from US rivers and lakes between 2013 and 2015.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research, the average level of PFAS in fish was 9,500 nanograms per kilogram.
Nearly three-quarters of the “forever chemicals” identified were PFOS, one of the most common and dangerous of the thousands of forms of PFAS.
The researchers estimated that eating just one freshwater fish is equivalent to drinking water with 48 parts per trillion of PFOS for a month.
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the level of PFOS in drinking water it considers safe to 0.02 parts per trillion.
Total levels of PFAS in freshwater fish were 278 times higher than those found in commercial fish, the study said.
David Andrews, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which led the research, told Agence France-Presse that he grew up catching and eating fish.
“I can no longer look at fish without thinking about PFAS contamination,” said Andrews, one of the study’s authors.
The findings were “of particular concern because of the impact on disadvantaged communities who consume fish as a protein source or for social or cultural reasons,” he added.
“This study makes me incredibly angry because the companies that produced and used PFAS have polluted the globe and have not been held accountable.”
Patrick Byrne, an environmental pollution researcher at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK who was not involved in the study, said PFASs are “probably the biggest chemical threat facing humanity in the 21st century”.
“This study is important because it provides the first evidence of widespread transfer of PFAS directly from fish to humans,” he told AFP.
Andrews called for much stricter regulation to end all non-essential uses of PFAS.
The research comes after Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden submitted a proposal to ban PFAS to the EU’s European Chemicals Agency on Friday.
The proposal, “one of the most extensive in the history of the EU”, came after five countries found that PFAS were not being adequately controlled and that regulation was needed across the bloc, the agency said in a statement.