PFAS in lobsters? Another sign these harmful compounds are everywhere, researchers say
Cape Cod Times
Feb 4, 2022
Researchers recently analyzed three lobsters caught in Massachusetts waters and found what they call high levels of PFAS. They criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for moving too slowly on studying and regulating these “forever chemicals.“
“The EPA has zero handle on where it is generated, used, and disposed of,” said Kyla Bennett, New England director for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and its director of Science Policy. Bennett worked for the EPA in New England for 10 years.
PEER is a nonprofit, founded in 1996 in part to help investigate claims by government whistleblowers and provide legal services. The group has been successful in campaigns to reduce harm from pesticides, lead-poisoning, to halt planting genetically modified crops in wildlife refuges, and in winning greater protection for whistleblowers.
PEER was sampling land and freshwater animals, and scallops and lobsters for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, when lobstermen caught the three lobsters in areas far from one another. Finding PFAS in the lobsters is evidence of the extent of the contamination, Bennett said.
“There’s nothing special about lobsters. If we tested manatees or right whales, we’d find it,” he said. “It’s indicative that we have a problem in Massachusetts coastal waters.”
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Due to its water and flame-resistance properties, PFAS has widespread use in consumer products, manufacturing and the military. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), this family of chemicals has been linked to increased cholesterol levels, lowered vaccine response, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
Oceans are the last-stop dump for PFAS
Other scientists agree the EPA has been slow to regulate, but these lobsters just show what is already known, that PFAS are everywhere including in the deepest oceans. But they also said that consumers and manufacturers are increasingly aware of the potential dangers posed by the thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family, and that more study and new regulations by the EPA and the states are helping to curb their use and hopefully their impacts on humans and ecosystems.
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The bonds between carbon and fluorine molecules in the PFAS family are extremely strong. It’s why they are so durable and are generally not considered biodegradable. They travel well in water and typically end up in the ocean.
“The oceans are our final waste dump, they will take up most of the PFAS we have produced,” said University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Rainer Lohmann, who also serves as director of the URI Superfund Research Center.
Wastewater treatment plants don’t filter out PFAS. Located near the water in the nation’s largest coastal cities, they frequently discharge to the ocean or into rivers that empty into the ocean, and are a major source of PFAS in the marine environment, Lohmann said.
Last month, health and agriculture regulators in Michigan issued a warning that they found PFAS compounds in the meat of cattle that had been fed grass fertilized by biosolids from a wastewater treatment plant. Some of the meat was sold to local schools. Wastewater plant biosolids used as fertilizer also are believed to be the source of high PFAS levels in wells and in crops sold by an organic farm in Maine.
Some PFAS compounds become airborne and settle into the ocean far from land. Contaminated groundwater is another source. Research has already found some ecosystem impacts that could affect the food chain, including a 2014 study that found that the chemicals could be weakening bacterial cell walls, making them less nutritious.
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It’s easier to assess the impacts on drinking water, where there are far fewer pollutants than along New England’s highly industrialized shoreline. Municipal drinking water facilities do have the technology to remove PFAS. But in the ocean there is no way to clean it, Lohmann said.
Part of the problem is that there are so many PFAS compounds and so little research done on their impacts, Jared Goldstone, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine toxicologist, said. These compounds are so small, they are hard and expensive to detect.
“You’re looking well down into the parts per trillion and you need a good analytical lab,” he said.
U.S. regulates chemicals after toxic effects on people, environment surface
The regulatory system in the U.S. is skewed towards manufacturers, Goldstone said. Unlike the European Union, which makes decisions from a cautionary standpoint requiring chemical manufacturers to demonstrate their product is not toxic before it is allowed to be used, the U.S. tends to weigh in after it has already been in use.
The PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS in firefighting foams, for instance, were not regulated until they started showing up in drinking water wells around military bases.
In the case of PFAS, there are so many different compounds that manufacturers tend to switch from a regulated to an unregulated and less studied one.
“It’s a continuously shifting landscape,” Goldstone said.
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One of the things that make the PFAS and other perfluorinated compounds harmful is that they can change the genetic messaging and protein building that modify tissues, like how birth control hormones change tissues to make pregnancy less possible, he said. But studying these changes in humans can take decades and there are thousands of compounds to test. Also, most of the health effects are correlated with something else, such as high cholesterol or low birth weight that could have other causes, Goldstone said.
The EPA’s job is to gather data, sift through studies and evaluate their relative strength and decide on what are the most likely effects and at what level of contamination they occur, he said.
“My sense is that the EPA tends to move more slowly than some of us would wish and slightly more conservatively, but that is the nature of a regulatory agency in the U.S.”
Progress on PFAS fueled by communities nationwide
It might seem an impossible task to regulate PFAS, but Lohmann said progress is being made.
“Quite a few things are happening with the regulation of PFAS,” he said. Driven mainly by the hundreds of communities nationwide where drinking water has been seriously contaminated, recent developments such as Massachusetts setting a low limit on PFAS in drinking water, and recent actions by the EPA, along with a number of lawsuits, are evidence of change.
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“The momentum has shifted and there is much more (emphasis) on regulation, protection and restrictions,” Lohmann said. “If we are concerned about human health, the most effective means would be to phase them out in a wide range of products and there are alternatives present.”
A paper largely authored by EPA researchers and published in the journal “Science” on Friday, found that there are thousands of PFAS compounds, many protected as manufacturing trade secrets, whose toxicity and use are not easily known. Others may be too complex for scientific research to easily unravel.
The paper called for “preventative upstream actions (as) critical to facilitate the transition to safer alternatives and minimize the impact of PFAS on human health and the environment.” In other words, more regulation based on the assumption of harm.
Thirty-three U.S. senators call for action on PFAS
In a bipartisan letter to President Joe Biden this week, 33 U.S. Senators including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Edward Markey urged that his FY23 budget request include detailed funding for scientific research to understand PFAS and develop tools and technologies to clean it up and destroy these “forever chemicals.”
The EPA has seen staffing and funding cuts over the years, and the senators urged that Biden include sufficient funds and staff to establish drinking water standards and other tasks outlined in the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap.
The letter also urged the president to address sources of contamination including agriculture, consumer products, firefighting foams, and address monitoring and Department of Defense testing and cleanup. They wanted the Biden administration to prioritize funding through the $10 billion portioned out to state drinking water revolving funds.
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Humans can be exposed to PFAS in many different ways including drinking contaminated well water, and Cape towns such as Barnstable have spent millions to remove it from municipal water systems. The federal toxic substances registry also list sources such as water repellent clothing and carpeting, eating food such as microwave popcorn whose packaging contains PFAS, accidentally swallowing contaminated soil and dust, and eating fish that take up the chemicals in their food.
Of course, those who have displayed the highest levels of PFAS by far in blood samples are workers at the plants who manufacture the chemicals, such as 3M and Dupont, according to ATSDR statistics. And discontinued use of firefighting foams resulted in the levels of PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS in blood samples in the U.S. dropping 60% and 80%, respectively, from 1999 to 2014.
Negative publicity, consumer pressure and grass roots activism has also increased awareness of the potential for harm in manufacturers, some of whom may not have realized that it was in their supply chain materials. Lohmann pointed to the shoe manufacturer Keene’s decision to eliminate PFAS from their waterproof shoes. That put pressure on their supply chain to find alternatives.
“It will have big trickle-down effects,” he said.
As for the lobsters, Goldstone said it’s likely that no one eats enough lobster to be concerned about their impact on PFAS levels in their body.
“Humans drink more water than they eat lobster,” he said.
PFAS in lobsters? Another sign these harmful compounds are everywhere, researchers say – Cape Cod Times – February 4, 2022