By Sean Zucker –
PFAS are the latest chemical boogeyman seemingly popping up nationwide and wreaking havoc on American health. The potentially cancerous compounds have surfaced in items from period underwear to household drinking water, among other products previously believed to be safe. PFAS may be lingering over a favorite dinner plate as a new study has found they have become increasingly present in common sushi ingredients. Researchers warn that eating only a single freshwater fish used for sushi each year is the equivalent of drinking water containing PFAS for a month straight.
As a refresher, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a diverse group of human-made chemicals used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, PFAS chemicals do not easily break down, making them harmful to humans and the environment. The FDA notes that PFAS may increase the risk of hormone disruption, developmental issues and some cancers in humans.
The latest concern over PFAS surfacing in sushi is thanks to work done by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit ecological research organization. It analyzed locally caught fish fillets from bodies of water across the states to determine the extent of PFAS contamination. After examining 500 samples over two years, the EWG found that the median level of total PFAS in the fish was 9,500 nanograms per kilogram. This ratio is 280 times greater than the amount recorded in commercially caught and sold fish.
“The extent that PFAS has contaminated fish is staggering,” reported the study’s lead researcher, Nadia Barbo. “There should be a single health protective fish consumption advisory for freshwater fish across the country.”
Based on these numbers, the team calculated that eating a single sushi-grade PFAS-contaminated fish was equal to consuming water littered with 48 parts per trillion of the chemicals for an entire month. The EWG points to the lax enforcement of regulations limiting PFAS from entering American waters as a possible culprit.
“For decades, polluters have dumped as much PFAS as they wanted into our rivers, streams, lakes and bays with impunity. We must turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from industrial discharges, which affect more and more Americans every day,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “These test results are breathtaking.”
Like plastic, PFAS do not break down over time, making their contamination an ongoing problem. As a result, they’ve earned the “forever chemicals” title. “PFAS do not disappear when products are thrown out or flushed away. Our research shows that the most common disposal methods may lead to further environmental pollution,” explained Dr. Tasha Stoiber, an EWG senior scientist and co-author of the study. “Identifying sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health priority,” Stoiber continued.
The research team notes that in addition to various cancers and developmental issues, consistent PFAS exposure can result in immune system suppression, reproductive problems, increased cholesterol and reduced vaccine efficiency. The EWG’s findings also suggest that more than 200 million Americans could drink water contaminated with PFAS before considering sushi intake. These results may even be enough to kill the joy of a favorite American pastime.
“People who consume freshwater fish, especially those who catch and eat fish regularly, are at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies,” Dr. David Andrews, an EWG senior scientist and another co-author on the study. “Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish. But now, when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination.”
Fortunately, the growing concerns have led to recent positive action toward addressing the PFAS water issues. A new infrastructure bill that went into effect in February 2023 provides the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) $2 billion to address emerging contaminants, including PFAS. The agency promises these funds will be used to promote access to safe and clean water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities.