SUNBURY — Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky wants the public to know about an emerging contaminant known as “forever chemicals” in Pennsylvania.
A 2013 sample taken from a walleye fish in the Susquehanna River near Sunbury contained 29,959 parts per trillion (ppt) of combined PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. This is one of the highest concentrations of “forever chemicals” in Pennsylvania per a recently released worldwide study featured via an interactive online map, according to Zaktansky.
“It’s an emerging contaminant in the river,” said Zaktansky. “We’ve had abandoned mine runoff and farm runoff, but this is a new thing we’re finding to pay attention to. We’re only now getting a better idea of what to look for.”
The analysis, based on more than 100 recent peer-reviewed studies, detected more than 120 unique PFAS compounds in these animals, not just the legacy forever chemicals PFOA and PFOS. Polluted animals were found on every continent except Antarctica. The absence of PFAS in species in Antarctica is not due to a lack of contamination but instead because of the absence of recent test results in the research studied, according to the Environmental Working Group that published the analysis.
“It’s a worldwide map,” Zaktansky said. “It’s not just here in our backyard. It’s everywhere. Hopefully, it’s eye-opening enough for people to want to address it.”
The new interactive map plots a great variety of wildlife, including many types of fish, birds, reptiles, frogs and other amphibians, large mammals such as horses and polar bears, and small mammals such as cats. Some are already endangered or threatened.
PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals. The pollutants, which repel water, oil and grease, are used in hundreds of everyday products from rain jackets to fast food wrapping to firefighting foam to Teflon pans to certain shampoos. They are man-made chemicals that are not found naturally in the wild, he said.
“They’re called forever chemicals because they just don’t break down,” he said. “They linger forever. Once they’re in the environment, there’s no known filter system to get them out on a large scale. It’s hard to get them out. We’re just now learning about them on a large scale and how bad they are for our environment.”
Products with PFAS get into the water system as people throw items away. As they sit in landfills or lay around as litter, or some industries have a washing process where it’s discharged without anyone being aware of it, the chemical run off into the water systems, said Zaktansky.
While in the water system, it works itself through the food chain. Fish absorb water through their gills and have no filtering system for the chemicals, he said.
They have been linked to carcinogenic effects in people, as well as impacting lipid metabolism, obesity, neurological effects. However, long-term effects are still unknown, he said.
Some states are banning products with PFAS. Others like Pennsylvania are adopting stricter limits, he said.
While there’s still not much that can be done yet, Zaktansky said having conversations and educating the public on the topic is the first step.
“The more people are aware, the more people who make smart shopping decisions, it will help stop the flow of where these PFAS are coming from,” he said.
Problem for all speciesDavid Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at EWG, said in a media release that PFAS pollution is “not just a problem for humans.”
“It’s a problem for species across the globe,” said Andrews. “PFAS are ubiquitous, and this first-of-its-kind map clearly captures the extent to which PFAS have contaminated wildlife around the globe.”
“From the polar bear in the far reaches of the Arctic to the hawksbill turtle in the tropics of the Pacific Ocean, the world’s most critically imperiled species have yet another danger to contend with: PFAS chemical pollution,” said Dr. Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our choice is either to keep enabling extinction with widespread chemical contamination or take action to prevent it.”
The chemicals are found in the blood of virtually everyone, including newborn babies. Very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to suppression of the immune system, including reduced vaccine efficacy, and an increased risk of certain cancers. PFAS are linked with increased cholesterol, reproductive and developmental problems and other health harms, according to EWG.
EWG estimates there may be more than 40,000 industrial polluters of PFAS in the U.S. Tens of thousands of manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills and wastewater treatment plants, airports and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used may be sources of PFAS discharges into surface water.
The map can be found at https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_in_wildlife/map/.