Scientist: 'Forever chemicals' are harming wildlife along with humans

A person stands in the water next to a net.
Smelt anglers take to the water in May last year along Park Point in Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan issued advisories on eating smelt because of PFAS pollution.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2022

Found in everything from water to cosmetics to cleaning products, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as forever chemicals — are a problem for human health. Now, a growing body of research is showing how harmful they are to wildlife, too.

Advocacy organization Environmental Working Group recently published a paper documenting PFAS’ presence in more than 600 species worldwide. In Minnesota, that includes bald eagles, bass, pike, trout and walleye.

“Humans have become the canary in the coal mine,” David Andrews, lead author of the paper and senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, told MPR News.

Several hundred studies of low-level PFAS exposure in humans, he said, show similar effects in wildlife around the world, such as immune system deficiency, reduced ability to heal from injury or illness, liver problems, trouble for birds hatching, trouble for turtles reproducing and endocrine and nervous system impacts.

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“And that hasn't really been taken into consideration yet in terms of either industrial chemical regulation or wildlife conservation efforts,” he said. “So this is really an incredibly painful story to see just because I see wildlife outside. And now the first thing that comes to my mind is PFAS contamination and knowing that these chemicals are present pretty much everywhere.”

Animals are typically exposed to the toxic chemicals in water. According to Andrews, this is related to the lack of regulation in emissions, PFAS usage and waste getting into the water supply.

Freshwater fish are particularly affected. Andrews said sampling across the U.S. found PFAS levels 100 to 1,000 times higher in the fish than in water.

“Fishermen or anglers who consume fish, maybe once a month or even once a year, those fish are likely a major source of their exposure for the entire year,” Andrews said. “And based on what we know about health harms at low concentrations, this is this is incredibly concerning.”

This past session, the Minnesota Legislature passed a sweeping ban on PFAS — the second in the nation — which will go into effect in phases over the next several years.

Part of Andrews’ work is lobbying in front of Congress. He said his main goals are passing a drinking water standard, cleanup standards and better tracking of where and in what products the chemicals are used.

“Ultimately, we don't want to make this problem worse,” Andrews said. “It comes down to turning off the tap and ending any future releases of these chemicals into the environment and also ending the unnecessary use of these chemicals.”