New report sounds alarm over ‘forever chemicals’ in freshwater fish, impacts on communities

By Kimberley Heatherington | OSV News

(OSV News) — While the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice weekly to reduce heart and stroke risk, a new report from the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) contains some alarming news about fresh caught options: “consumption of just a single serving of freshwater fish per year could be equal to a month of drinking water laced with the ‘forever chemical’ PFOS.”

“Forever chemicals” such as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) are so called because their components don’t degrade over time, but instead accumulate in people, wildlife and the environment.

For Catholics, caring for creation by restoring America’s water quality involves not just concerns for natural ecosystems but also communities — particularly those with fewer resources — that need drinking water, or rely on fishing and hunting to put food on the table for their families.

Technically known as PFAS (“per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”) thousands of these man-made elements and their constituent compounds are found in consumer, commercial, and industrial products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency states scientific studies link exposure to some PFAS with “harmful health effects in humans and animals.”

PFAS invade water sources primarily through industrial sites, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. In 2022, tests by the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance found that of “114 waterways from across the country, 83% were found to contain at least one type of PFAS. … Waterways in 29 states and D.C. were found to be contaminated by at least one, but … many revealed the presence of up to 35 different PFAS compounds.”

Space-filling model of the perfluorooctanesulfonic acid molecule, also known as PFOS, a fluorosurfactant and global pollutant. (image from Wikipedia)

The U.S. isn’t alone. UNESCO reports that, worldwide, “water pollution is becoming one of the greatest threats to freshwater availability and reuse.”

The EWG’s study — with EPA and Food and Drug Administration data — revealed PFAS in freshwater fish 280 times higher than in commercially caught and sold fish. It cautioned that “consuming a single meal of freshwater fish could lead to similar PFAS exposure as ingesting store-bought fish every day for a year.”

EWG remarked that its findings “are a particular issue for communities with environmental justice concerns, whose survival often depends on eating freshwater fish they’ve caught.”

Ecologist Bill Jacobs, founder and executive director of Saint Kateri Conservation Center, a faith-based land trust that also protects water, told OSV News, “I think the solution for now, if there is one, is for people to be informed, and for state and federal regulators to continue to study, monitor and better regulate these chemicals,” he said. “States may advise limiting the consumption of fish caught in certain water bodies.”

The FDA’s October 2021 “Advice About Eating Fish” bulletin recommends the health benefits of eating fish, but when it comes to “fish caught by family and friends,” the FDA advises people to consult state or tribal advisories as some of these fish, “such as larger carp, catfish, trout and perch,” may have “mercury or other contaminants.”

“Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world,” observes the EPA, including “in water, air, fish and soil at locations across the nation and the globe.”

A September 2022 Pew Charitable Trusts article reported PFAS are “so widespread that they’re found in the blood of 97% of Americans.”

This pervasive diffusion, the EPA concedes, “makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks.” Nonetheless, the agency has introduced a spate of actions to confront what it terms “the PFAS crisis.”

According to Bloomberg Law, “laws and regulations restricting ‘forever chemicals’ in more than a half dozen states are entering effect in 2023.” Still, as Waterkeeper Alliance noted in October 2022, “there are currently no universal, science-based limits on the various PFAS chemicals in the United States.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Congress to support the PFAS Action Act of 2021. Archbishops Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, respectively representing the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said in a July 19, 2021, letter that “access to safe, potable water is an indispensable human right and government leaders have a moral responsibility to safeguard society from poisonous chemical contaminations.”

After passing the House, H.R. 2467 perished in the Senate; it would have federally regulated PFAS, set drinking water standards, and made contaminated sites eligible for cleanup.

Given the protracted nature of federal-level action, individual action is important, explained Joe Meyer, a biologist and environmental science educator who heads the Wisconsin-based Laudato Si’ Project and Catholic Ecology Center.

“We are making choices throughout our day that have various consequences, environmentally and ecologically. Our choices mean something,” he said.

“Choosing what to eat, and what to purchase — we can make choices that can be better environmentally,” Meyer recommended. “We can lessen consumption of certain items or eliminate them to simplify our lifestyle. We actually have a lot more power than we think we do.”

The overall question, Meyer said, is how “we as people of faith respond to these environmental challenges.”

“We are called to respond to them, just as if we’re responding to injustices for the poor and human life,” he said. “It’s just that package deal of Catholicism.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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