While environmental officials have yet to test a wide range of aquatic life for manmade “forever chemicals,” a Washington, D.C.-area environmental group’s lab studies detected amounts of PFAS chemicals in fish, crabs and oysters.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of chemicals which may be harmful to human health and are found in household items such as non-stick pans, cleaning products, paints and polishes, as well as certain firefighting foams, were detected in samples taken by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, in October, shortly after the Maryland Department of the Environment released its own test results.
PFAS compounds do not break down and accumulate over time, according to the EPA, which has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Evidence suggests exposure to PFOS and PFOA, two of the major PFAS, can lead to adverse health effects, including negative effects on the immune system and reproductive issues.
PEER’s study detected the chemicals in a striped bass caught in Cornfield Harbor, in the Potomac River adjacent to Point Lookout State Park, which included 15,000 parts per trillion of PFOA. In total, the fish tested for 23,100 ppt of nine different PFAS. Crab meat had 6,650 ppt of eight PFAS and oyster meat had 2,070 ppt of five PFAS.
In a release, PEER director Tim Whitehouse said the values “should be a red flag to Maryland,” noting, “People deserve to know what toxins are in their food.”
The absolute amount found in the seafood is not exact, though, as some of the chemicals were below the reporting limit but above the minimum detection level of the lab, a contentious point between environmental activists and the MDE.
When PFAS are detected below the reporting limit, they are detectable and present, but the data cannot point to an exact value, according to lab report. While PEER’s lab has a minimum detectable level for most PFAS at 200 ppt and a reporting limit at 600 ppt for oysters, the MDE, for PFOS, used a lab with a minimum detectable level of 887 ppt and a reporting limit of 1,000, and similar levels for other PFAS.
Both of the labs are “pushing the lower reporting limits of the methodology,” MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said last week. “We do not consider the difference in reporting limits to be a significant issue.”
The EPA has set non-enforceable lifetime health advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, but not seafood or surface water, or any other PFAS compounds. The lifetime advisory for drinking water is 70 ppt, based on the assumption of a lifetime of exposure to the two chemicals from drinking water.
Apperson said the EPA has not recommended water quality criteria for surface water as far as it relates to its accumulation in aquatic life, and MDE does not have authority to regulate commercial seafood, but offers “science-based consumption advisories” for fish, with meal limits based on all contaminates found in fish from different waterways.
Apperson said MDE calculated its PFOA and PFOS oyster consumption risk in its October based on “reasonable assumptions” of 10 meals consisting of eight ounce oyster portions, determining an oyster would have to contain 269 parts per billion, or 269,000 ppt of the chemicals to be a risk.
Responding to criticism that MDE marked values between the reporting limit and the minimum detectable levels as not detectable in oysters, Apperson said if one were to assume all PFAS compounds were equal to the PFOA and PFOS levels, and assuming the concentration was all at the reporting limit, no oyster sample came close to reaching 269 ppb of PFAS.
“The highest level of total PFAS in an oyster from the St. Mary’s pilot was 46 ppb, which is about six times lower than the screening value,” Apperson said. “A summation of the reporting limits for the PEER data was also 46 ppb.”
As the EPA has not taken action, Whitehouse suggested the state “needs to start developing health-based standards for PFAS chemicals in water and food,” suggesting the state “should explore ways to hold corporations accountable so that its citizens are not left footing the bill for cleanup.”
At a livestreamed web conference, MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state environmental agency’s work is not done after releasing its PFAS report in October, which noted little threat of the chemicals in some St. Mary’s waters.
“We were not saying, all is clean here, mission accomplished,” he said, calling the results of PEER’s recent study “troubling,” and noting regulators would continue to test drinking water and fish tissue.
“We know more needs to be done, and it can’t be limited to just drinking water,” he said.
MDE has begun sampling recreationally caught fish species in waterways, and plans to finish by the end of the year, Apperson said.