Freshwater fish are hundreds of times more contaminated with PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ than store-bought fish, according to a new nationwide study of federal test results.
One PFAS chemical in particular — PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) — accumulates dangerously in freshwater fish, and it quickly reaches the bloodstream of anglers who eat their contaminated catches.
But even as federal alarms about the health risks of PFAS chemicals grow increasingly dire, people who consume fish caught in the Finger Lakes lack the data necessary to weigh the risks they are taking.
The state Department of Health’s advice page “on eating the fish you catch” is silent on PFAS risks in the Finger Lakes, and the new nationwide study doesn’t include samples from any of the 11 lakes.
The DOH applies vastly different standards for warning about PFAS exposure, depending on whether it resulted from eating or drinking.
For example, the agency requires public water systems to clean up if PFOS in their tap water exceeds 10 parts per trillion. But it doesn’t issue a “DON’T EAT” alarm until PFOS levels in fish reach 200,000 parts per trillion, and it doesn’t issue any caution if the PFOS in fish is less than 50,000 ppt.
But New York is actually ahead of the curve. More than 30 states don’t provide any warnings at all about PFAS in fish.
“The extent that PFAS has contaminated fish is staggering,” said Nadia Barbo, a graduate student at Duke University and lead researcher the new study. “There should be a single health protective fish consumption advisory for freshwater fish across the country.”
Barbo teamed with scientists at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group to analyze 501 samples of freshwater fish collected nationwide by the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2015. The median level of all PFAS chemicals in the samples was 9,500 ppt., including 8,410 ppt. for PFOS.
That median PFAS level for freshwater fish was 278 times higher than levels in “commercially relevant fish tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019-2022,” EWG calculated. The FDA had tested commercially caught fish sold in grocery stores and supermarkets.
“People who consume freshwater fish, especially those who catch and eat fish regularly, are at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies,” said David Q. Andrews, EWG senior scientist and one of the study’s lead authors.
An estimated 17.6 million Americans eat three or more meals a week of seafood or fish, and roughly 1.8 million of those report catching their own to eat, according to another recent peer-reviewed study.
Those in the catch-to-eat group are taking big risks, EWG claims. One serving per year of freshwater fish could expose a person to the same level of PFOS as a month’s worth of drinking water laced with PFOS at 48 ppt, EWG said. That’s almost five times the state’s threshold for required tap water cleanup.
On average, Americans have PFOS in their blood at 4.3 ppt, and one person in 20 registers as high as 14.6 ppt. Eating just one freshwater fish (with the average PFOS contamination of 8,410 ppt.) per month would raise that level by 11.07 ppt, EWG said. Eating the fish weekly would raise it by 47.96, EWG calculated.
People exposed to high levels of PFAS have an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, higher cholesterol levels, higher blood pressure, pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased vaccine response in children and other symptoms, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Studies of PFAS contamination in lab animals have found damage to the liver and immune system, birth defects, low birth weights and other health effects.
Compounds in the PFAS class, which includes several thousand variants, are referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down naturally and accumulate in exposed humans and animals.
“Identifying and reducing sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health priority,” the EWG study concluded.
The group’s analysis was based on two EPA data sets during the 2013-2015 period — one that focused on rivers and streams (349 samples) and the other that focused on the Great Lakes (152 samples).
Most of the studied samples of New York freshwater fish were collected along the shorelines of lakes Erie and Ontario. A handful came from New York rivers. None of the studied samples came from any of the 11 Finger Lakes.
Lake Erie had PFAS readings ranging from 6,140 ppt (a freshwater drum caught in 2015) to 45,500 ppt (a white base caught in 2015) — both near Dunkirk.
More than half of the New York samples from Lake Ontario had PFOS readings above 20,000 ppt.
Samples from 2013 and 2014 showed the following readings for fish caught in New York rivers: the Hudson, 72,400 ppt; the Allegheny, 31,700 ppt; the Mohawk, 19,500 ppt; the Susquehanna, 17,900 ppt; the Seneca, 8,820 ppt; the Genesee, 8,190; the Chemung, 6,620; and the Chenango, 5,440 ppt.
Earlier samples had shown high PFOS readings for the Oswego River (127,400 ppt in a largemouth bass sampled near Fulton in 2008) and the Mohawk River (65,600 ppt from a largemouth bass sampled near Utica in 2009).
On its website, the DOH warns anglers to limit fish consumption or avoid it entirely due to threats from mercury, PCBs, dioxin and other toxins. PFAS is listed far less frequently in “DON’T EAT” warnings, and nearly always with other toxins.
For example, the agency’s “Finger Lakes Region Advice” webpage includes “DON’T EAT” warnings for several types of fish from a dozen waterbodies, but it cites PFAS as a threat in only one — Onondaga Lake.
Onondaga, located immediately northwest of Syracuse, has long been an EPA superfund site contaminated with PCBs, mercury and dioxin.
A 2022 monitoring study of anglers near Onondaga Lake found that the most frequent consumers of freshwater fish had median levels of PFOS in their blood at 9.5 times the U.S. median, as well as traces of PFDA, another PFAS variant, at 26.9 times the U.S. median.
The DOH’s website does have “DON’T EAT” fish warnings due to PFAS for several waterbodies near towns that have earned headlines about dangerous levels of PFAS in their public drinking water, including Hoosick Falls and Newburgh.
The contamination in Hoosick Falls, about 30 miles northeast of Albany, has been linked to a Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant nearby.
The mayor of Newburgh, a Hudson River town about 70 miles north of New York City, declared an emergency in 2016 when local drinking water was found to have PFOS at 170 ppt. Local officials soon pinpointed the source of the contamination: AFFF firefighting foam used liberally at Stewart Air National Air Guard Base two miles west of Newburgh.
In a multi-year study, the Department of Defense identified 664 military bases around the country that routinely used the PFAS-laced foam in training exercises aimed at teaching ways to douse petroleum-fed aircraft fires. The study aimed to identify hot spots for ‘forever chemical’ pollution.
“Landscapes and water systems adjacent to areas of AFFF (firefighting foam) use often have high levels of PFAS in soil, sediment, groundwater, surface water, or drinking water,” a 2020 peer-reviewed study reported.
The DOD’s 2017 investigation of the former Seneca Army Depot just east of Seneca Lake discovered underground plumes of PFOA and PFOS — the state’s top two PFAS targets in drinking water — with contamination levels reaching 92,900 parts per trillion.
Neither the DOD nor state officials have been forthcoming about the possible expansion or migration of those chemical plumes.
The non-profit environmental group Seneca Lake Guardian, among others, has tried unsuccessfully to learn more.
Yvonne Taylor, SLG’s co-founder, said her group met with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff in 2019 to discuss the former Seneca Army Depot plumes near the town of Romulus.
“Nothing came of that meeting,” Taylor said. “We’re requested more information from the NYS Department of Health about these plumes, and been consistently stonewalled.”
The fire training sites identified as the origins of the plumes are a close as one mile from Seneca Lake.
Furthermore, Reeder Creek runs through the heart of the former depot, emptying into Seneca Lake near the town of Varick. Several anglers have posted pictures on Facebook of fish caught near the spot Reeder Creek meets the lake.
“High concentrations of PFAS in fresh water fish is particularly alarming since many families rely on this as a major source of food and could experience food scarcity without it,” Taylor said. “The bottom line is that New York needs to get a handle on the problem of PFAS, set safe limits across the board, find out where PFAS is coming from, and clean up our waterways.”
Neither the DOH nor the state Department of Environmental Conservation responded directly to WaterFront requests for all data on PFAS levels found in Seneca Lake fish. The DOH’s full response is here, and the DEC’s is here. Seneca Lake Guardian’s full statement is here.
Officials with Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association declined to comment on PFOS in freshwater fish until they had time to thoroughly review the EWG study.
Peter is a three-time Pulitzer nominated reporter covering environmental issues through his first-of-its-kind digital publication The Water Front. He’s won an array of Associated Press, UPI, and Society of Professional Journalist awards. His reporting on environmental issues continues to be featured in prominent New York publications and is available on FingerLakes1.com through an exclusive content partnership. Have a question or lead? Send it to [email protected].