Local Reporting Desensitizes the Public on the Threat of PFAS Chemicals in our Waters and Seafood

Satellite View of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. NASA image taken by MODIS.

This article was previously published on https://www.militarypoisons.org/

This analysis is intended to provide clarity to the November 23, 2020 article in Southern Maryland News, “Environmental group finds ‘forever chemicals’ in seafood” by reporter Dan Belson. Many of the misrepresentations in this reporting commonly appear in publications across the country.  Misreporting on PFAS stems from reporters’ overreliance on information given to them by federal and state agencies, and their failure to check with independent experts on the veracity and relevance of the information provided to them by these agencies. 

News reporters ought to consult  with outside experts who can provide information on claims made by state agencies.  Organizations like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (PEER), and the Environmental Working Group, (EWG) are excellent resources. 

Here are some examples of the misrepresentations in the November 23rd article.

Commentary follows excerpts from the news story.

So. MD News: “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.”

Military Poisons: PFAS are harmful to human health, period.   Non-stick pans, cleaning products, paints and polishes are believed to contribute a miniscule portion of the contamination in our surface waters. According to the EPA, PFAS manufacturing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams are the main sources of PFAS in our environment. The seafood examined in the PEER study was collected close to the Webster Field Annex of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station where there is clear documentation that the substances were used for many years.  The Southern Maryland News article fails to identify the US Navy as the likely source of the contamination.

So. MD News:  “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.”

Military Poisons:  This segment downplays the devastating impact of all PFAS chemicals. Exposure to all 6,000+ PFAS are believed to be dangerous while public health scientists call for regulating them  as a class. Addressing just PFOS and PFOA – two types of PFAS phased out of use – provides a degree of cover for industrial and military polluters who have switched to other toxic varieties of these chemicals and intend to continue using them despite the impact on public health.

So. MD News:  “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.”

Military Poisons:  Here, we have reporting that tends to muddle the science.  

23,100 parts per trillion (ppt)  of several varieties of PFAS were found in the Potomac rockfish. Period. Ten different toxins were found. Not maybe – not sort of:

Perfluorononanoic acid, (PFNA)
Perfluorodecanoic acid, (PFDA)
Perfluorotridecanoic acid, (PFTrDA)
Perfluorotetradecanoic acid, (PFTeDA)
Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, (PFOS)
Perfluorodecanesulfonic acid, (PFDS)
Perfluorododecanesulfonic acid, (PFDoS)
Perfluorooctanesulfonamide, (PFOSA)
Perfluorododecanoic acid, (PFDA) and
Perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA) 

.. were all present in the fish.

PFOS was found at a concentration of 15,000 ppt. This is a fact. The formula for PFOS is C8HF17O3S. Its molar mass is 500.13 g/mol. These are facts. The So. MD News piece reported that PFOA was found at 15,000 ppt., rather than PFOS.  It’s an understandable error in this sea of scientific terms and acronyms., although PFOS is particularly notorious because of its ability to travel far from the original site of contamination.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” ― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 1951

​Military Poisons, cont.: Exposure to PFOS has caused hepatotoxicity, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, thyroid disruption, cardiovascular toxicity, pulmonary toxicity, and renal toxicity in laboratory animals and many in vitro human systems.

These results and related epidemiological studies confirm the human health risks of PFOS, especially for exposure via seafood. The other toxins found in our fish listed above have many of these same impacts on humans.

These are truths, inconvenient truths. 

                                                                   ____________________________________________________________________________________Two servings of MD rockfish per lifetime, kiddo.A meal of pan-fried rockfish may weigh 8 ounces or 227 grams. If the filet of the fish contains 23,100 ppt of PFAS chemicals, that’s 23.1 parts per billion, which is the same as 23.1 nanograms per gram.  So, 23.1 ng/g x 227 g = 5,244 ng of PFAS chemicals.

The European Food Safety Authority has set a Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) at 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight for 4 PFAS chemicals in food.  
So, according to this guideline, a 7-year-old weighing 50 pounds (22.6 kilos) can “safely” consume 100 nanograms per week of PFAS chemicals.

One meal of Chesapeake rockfish containing 5,244 ng of PFAS is more than 50 times greater than the European weekly limit for our child. If we abide by the more responsible 1 ppt daily limit championed by many public health experts, our little boy would be limited to ingesting one serving every 42 years. This is not demagoguery, MDE.  It is a public health crisis.

So. MD News: “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.”

Military Poisons: The difference in reporting limits is a significant issue. A minimum detectable level of 887 is high, and it is very different than PEER’s at 200.  In a hypothetical scenario, seafood could have dozens of different types of PFAS that collectively present a dangerous level of the chemicals. But if each is below its individual recommended limit, then it’s considered safe.

So. MD News:  “Apperson said MDE calculated its PFOA and PFOS oyster consumption risk in its October [report] 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.”

Military Poisons:  MDE has not said where it came up with the 269,000 ppt safety standard. PEER’s Director, Tim Whitehouse said he has no idea where they got that number from, either.  MDE needs to explain how it arrived at 269 parts per billion as the consumption risk for oysters.

MD Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles promises to test fish for PFAS. Can we trust the results?So. MD News:  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.

Military Poisons: The entire narrative conspires to downplay the threat to human health. The MDE’s credibility is questionable after the publication of its pilot study. Public health has suffered under its inaction.

So. MD News:   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.

Military Poisons: The MDE’s playbook is to hide behind the EPA’s inaction. Maryland has no advisories for eating fish, crabs, or oysters contaminated with PFAS. 

Sarah Caspar, a biochemist with 16 years of experience working with the EPA, expressed alarm at the high levels of contaminants in the rockfish. She said PFAS levels as low as 1-2 ppt. may cause harm.  “Since PFAS effects have to do with both dose and length of time of exposure, there may not be any level that is safe.”  Caspar added, “Maryland is in EPA Region 3 which seems to be doing little or nothing to help those near Warminster Army base and Willow Grove Air Base in Montgomery and Bucks Co PA. Children with brain tumors, adults with auto-immune diseases, endocrine disease (thyroid), etc. have been reported.”

So. MD News:  “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.

Military Poisons:  This would have been an excellent opportunity for the writer of the piece to remind his readers that the Potomac rockfish contained 23,100 ppt, or 330 times the concentration of the EPA’s drinking water advisory, while several states have enacted enforceable maximum contaminant levels for  several PFAS at 20 ppt. New Jersey, for instance, limits PFOS in  drinking water to 13 parts per trillion while Maryland does not regulate the toxins and its fish exceed the New Jersey limit in drinking water by more than a thousand times.  

By not checking on the claims made by MDE, Southern Maryland News has served to desensitize the public regarding the threat of PFAS chemicals in our waters and seafood. 

Local and state authorities must immediately warn women who are pregnant or may become pregnant not to consume seafood containing PFAS. 

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