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Freshwater fish contaminated with toxic "forever chemicals" found in nearly every state

Freshwater fish contaminated with PFAS
Fish contaminated with "forever chemicals" found in nearly every state 02:41

Health experts have been sounding the alarm about PFAS, human-made toxic chemicals that last so long in the environment and people that they've been called "forever chemicals. The compounds have been linked to cancer and other illnesses, and more than 95% of all Americans who have been tested have detectable levels in their blood.

On Michigan lakes and rivers, biologists are testing fish for PFAS — which have been widely used for decades to make nonstick cookware, waterproof fabrics, firefighting foam and even cosmetics.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were notably used by DuPont to make Teflon and 3M to make Scotchgard. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a host of health issues, including kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage and even higher cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both DuPont and 3M have moved to limit the use of PFAS in their products.

An auto parts plant near Detroit has discharged so much PFAS into the Huron River that the state of Michigan says the fish aren't safe to eat. 

"They've just contaminated fish everywhere," said Dan Brown, a climatologist and watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council.

"The Huron River, I think is one of the canaries in the coal mine," Brown added. "I think we're just now seeing the tip of the iceberg. If we're finding PFAS here, in all the fish we sample, I think you go to any river throughout the United States and you're gonna find similar levels of PFAS."

A recent study by the Environmental Working Group using freshwater fish samples collected by the Environmental Protection Agency found contaminated fish in almost every state.

"Nearly every single sample had PFAS in it, and at levels that consuming a single serving of fish would be equivalent to a year of contaminated water," said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group and one of the authors of the EPA study.

EWG has even created an interactive map showing where freshwater fish contaminated with PFAS have been detected and provides information on what species of fish have been contaminated with what types of PFAS.

For the first time, the federal government is proposing strict regulations limiting PFAS in drinking water, suggesting amounts 90% lower than previous recommendations. But for the time being, states essentially make their own rules.

Abigail Hendershott is leading Michigan's effort to find and fix PFAS pollution.

"The easy thing for consumers to understand is, has my lake been tested? Has my river been tested?" she said. "So, when it comes to public health and fish consumption, we want to make sure people are thinking about this holistically."

Many companies are phasing out certain kinds of PFAS, but many more remain in use. 

"The longer we use PFAS, the longer we're going to poison ourselves," Brown said.

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