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Malice of Freshwater Fish

PFASEating just one freshwater fish is like drinking a month’s worth of water laced with the dangerous chemical PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid).  This is according to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The PFOS, along with others in the class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), is commonly found in everyday products.  They include carpet coating, shampoo, and eye makeup. However, it is now also showing up in our food sources, specifically in freshwater fish.

The Study

The EWG study, published in the journal Environmental Research, found that eating one fish from America’s rivers and lakes in a single year was equivalent to regularly ingesting water with PFOS at 48 parts per trillion (ppt) over the course of an entire month.  In particular, the median level of PFAS in the fish fillets studied was 9,500 nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg).  Those levels rose to 11,800 ng/kg in fish from the Great Lakes. These levels are alarmingly high.  According to the EPA, the safe limits for PFAS in drinking water are much lower.  They amount to 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS and 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA.

Dangerous PFAS

The dangers of PFAS are well-documented, with links to a number of serious health problems.  They include lower sperm concentration and count in men, high blood pressure, and liver disease. These chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” are particularly concerning.  They never biodegrade, meaning that even if efforts to reduce PFAS pollution are successful, the chemicals that are already present in the environment will continue to pose a threat to human health. PFAS are found in a wide range of products including furniture, non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, dental floss, water bottles, and water-resistant coating on umbrellas. This means that it is near-impossible for individuals to control their exposure to these chemicals. Even when older PFAS are phased out and no longer used, newer chemicals are often used as replacements.  This makes it difficult for consumers to know whether they are being exposed to these dangerous chemicals.


The exposure to chemical pollutants in freshwater fish across the United States is a case of environmental injustice.  It particularly affects communities that depend on fishing for sustenance and for traditional cultural practices. Identifying and reducing sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health priority. One possible mitigation method is to use hydrogen and ultraviolet light.  This is according to a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters. By adding extra hydrogen to water, researchers at the University of California were able to break down specific PFAS types like PFOS and PFOA when exposed to ultraviolet light without any dangerous byproducts. However, this approach will not work for every type of PFAS, and there are currently over 4,700 PFAS in existence.

In conclusion, the recent study by the EWG highlights the alarming levels of PFAS in freshwater fish in the US. These chemicals, known as “forever chemicals,” are linked to a number of serious health problems and never biodegrade. The exposure to chemical pollutants in freshwater fish is a case of environmental injustice.  The focus should be on removing PFAS from products and the environment.  In addition, regulatory efforts should be increased to make sure replacement chemicals are safe.

Learn more about diseases caused by contaminated water.

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