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Home » News » Environment » Which fish are safe to eat? State’s latest advisories skim over evidence many are highly contaminated with PFOS

Which fish are safe to eat? State’s latest advisories skim over evidence many are highly contaminated with PFOS

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

The state’s latest health advisories on eating freshwater fish downplay the dangers of PFAS “forever chemicals” and gloss over troubling evidence from the Finger Lakes.

“Popular fish such as trout, yellow perch, sunfish, crappie, and smaller walleye are still great choices for eating,” the state Department of Health said in a press release earlier this month. “However, people should eat less freshwater drum, white perch, larger walleye, and smallmouth bass.”

For example, it’s safe for most people to eat lake trout caught in the Finger Lakes four times a month, the DOH advises. But the region’s children under 15 and women under 50 (who may become pregnant) shouldn’t eat lake trout more than once a month.

The new emphasis on the levels of harmful chemicals in specific types of fish make the new advisories “more protective than ever,” state Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said.

Anglers should also check for waterbody-specific advice, the DOH advises, because fish in some lakes and streams have higher levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and PFAS (perfluorinated alkyl) substances.

While the DOH offers special health advisories for eating fish from the Catskills and the Adirondacks, the 11 Finger Lakes are covered by general statewide advisories.

But the new DOH advisories do not reflect recent drastic changes in federal regulation of PFAS chemicals, including PFOS, consistently the most common variant of the chemical class found in freshwater fish.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said water utilities would be required to undergo cleanup if they produced tap water contaminated with PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) above 4 parts per trillion — dramatically more strict than EPA’s 70 ppt non-enforceable standard that had been in place.

But the DOH hasn’t budged form its long-standing advice that most people can eat four meals a month of a fish as long is its PFOS concentration is less than 50,000 ppt. It’s “Do Not Eat” warning is not triggered until PFOS levels reach 200,000 ppt.

Meanwhile, New York State requires water utilities to remediate when PFOS exceeds 10 ppt in their tap water. The DOH offers no explanation for the state’s widely divergent stances on eating PFOS-contaminated fish and drinking PFOS-contaminated tap water.

It makes no difference whether PFOS contamination comes from eating or drinking, Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, told WaterFront last year.

“Both are routes of ingestion,” Birnbaum said. “Whether you eat it or drink it, PFAS (chemicals) go to the same places in the body and do the same thing … We do need appropriate fish advisories and regulation of what’s in our food.”

PFAS compounds — there are at least 12,000 — have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage and a host of other serious ailments even when exposure doses are miniscule.

New York State’s rules for remediating PFAS in public drinking water soon will have to conform to the strict new federal limits. Meanwhile, the DOH is still working out the details of how it will inform members of the public when their tap water fails to met the latest standards.

The DOH’s health advice on eating freshwater fish is based largely on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s fish monitoring program.

“With so many people enjoying their catch as a meal, it is critical to ensure anglers are well-informed and are aware of potential health risks from contaminants that can build up in fish tissue,” said outgoing DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

Although DEC says it tests more than 1,000 fish samples annually, its data is far from comprehensive. 

In the Finger Lakes, the DEC has never tested for PFAS in fish from Canandaigua, Owasco or Conesus lakes. And the agency says it is still processing the results of PFAS testing of fish from Skaneateles (2023), Honeoye (2023) and Keuka (2022) lakes. 

Completed testing for Otisco (2018), Canadice (2019), Seneca (2020), Cayuga (2021) and Hemlock (2023) lakes showed that fish from Seneca Lake were by far the most contaminated. The DOH fish advisories make no distinction.

DEC tests showed one of the 10 Seneca-caught yellow perch had PFOS of 34,700 ppt. Four of the lake trout from Seneca had PFOS levels above 15,000 ppt.

When SUNY-ESF scientists reported followup tests of lake trout from Seneca in 2023, they found an average PFOS level of 11,800 ppt. One lake trout registered 44,000 ppt.

Under the DOH’s new health advisories, each of those contaminated yellow perch and lake trout from Seneca would qualify as “good choice” fish, suitable for the general public to eat four times a month. But the sensitive population — defined as women under 50 (who might become pregnant) and children under 15 — are advised to limit consumption of those fish to once a month.

“People who become pregnant and eat contaminated fish may be at a higher risk of having children with developmental or learning delays,” the DOH’s press release notes. “Children who eat a lot of contaminated fish may also have potential for negative effects on their development and long-term health.

“In contrast, older adults may face fewer health risks from these chemicals, so the advice encourages them to enjoy eating these sport-caught fish more frequently.”

But people who eat fish contaminated with PFOS can expect the chemical to show up in their blood, according to a widely-reported 2023 study by scientists at Duke University and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The Duke-EWG study found that the median level of PFOS in 501 EPA samples of freshwater fish caught nationwide from 2013-2015 was 8,410 ppt. 

On average, Americans had PFOS in their blood at 4.3 parts per billion in 2018. Eating the “average” fish in the Duke-EWG study once a month would raise blood contamination levels by 11.07 ppb, those scientists calculated. Eating that “average” fish weekly — as the latest DOH advisories recommend for the general public — would raise PFOS levels in blood by 47.96 ppb., they added.

Health consequences can be expected from blood contamination levels that high, according to the National Academy of Sciences. When combined PFAS chemicals in blood exceed 20 ppb, clinicians should encourage patients to identify and reduce PFAS exposure, NAS has recommended.

While New York’s fish advisories might be considered outdated, most states don’t even have fish advisories.