‘Forever chemicals’ in freshwater fish: Mapping a growing environmental justice problem

EPA data reveal high levels of PFAS in fish and human exposure risks

Update September 26, 2023: The EPA has released a new round of data detecting PFAS in freshwater fish – samples were collected between 2013 to 2019. These new results have been reflected on the accompanying map.

What does this map show?

From coast to coast, and in almost every state in the U.S., high levels of the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS contaminate freshwater fish. The potential harm is not limited to fish, but the pollution poses health risks to communities that catch and eat the fish.

This map, based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency, confirms the detection of PFAS at alarming levels in freshwater fish in U.S. bodies of water. We analyzed a subset of this data including over 500 fish fillet samples collected by EPA monitoring programs from 2013 to 2015. The average amount of total PFAS in a freshwater fish is 9,500 nanograms per kilogram, and an average of 11,800 nanograms per kilogram in the Great Lakes region.

Interactive map: ‘Forever chemicals’ in freshwater fish

Drinking water systems across the U.S. are contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The presence of these toxic chemicals in water is known to harm humans who are exposed to them. This map shows how PFAS also contaminate fish in rivers, lakes and streams.

EWG’s research shows that PFOS levels in fish are so high that even infrequent consumption would significantly increase PFOS levels in people. Earlier research has linked increased fish consumption to higher PFAS exposure, and this study highlights how contamination of freshwater fish is particularly concerning. Along with PFOA, PFOS is considered one of the most studied and notorious types of PFAS and the one most commonly found in fish.

A landmark EWG map shows at least 2,858 locations in all 50 states and two U.S. territories known to be contaminated with PFAS. And the number is growing at an alarming rate.

The latest findings underscore how widespread a problem PFAS has become, contaminating not only the water we drink but also the fish many of us eat. Consuming PFAS-laced fish is yet another way humans are exposed to chemicals long known to be catastrophically harmful to our health.

The pollution is especially problematic for communities living near bodies of water, whose sustenance depends on consumption of fish they’ve caught, since the more contaminated the fish someone eats, the greater their overall exposure to PFAS, and the greater the risk to their health. These are often historically disadvantaged communities who frequently unfairly face disproportionate risk from exposure to PFAS in the fish they catch.

The disparity between freshwater and store-bought fish highlights the lopsided impact of this contamination on these communities, since results of Food and Drug Administration tests conducted from 2019 to 2022 show the average amount of PFAS in commercially caught, packaged and sold fish is far lower than in freshwater fish.

Where does the pollution come from?

EWG estimates there may be over 40,000 industrial facilities contributing to the PFAS contamination problem in the U.S. Tens of thousands of manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills and wastewater treatment plants, airports and sites where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used are potential sources of PFAS discharges into surface water. Because of these firefighting foams, Department of Defense installations are also known to be hot spots of PFAS contamination. 

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What’s being done about PFAS contamination?

The EPA has announced a PFAS Action Plan that includes proposals for tackling PFAS contamination in air, food and water. But many actions have yet to be implemented.

Other agencies, including the DOD, have outlined steps they intend to take to reduce the risk of PFAS contamination and exposure.

But more must be done. What’s needed is a swift and comprehensive federal strategy making it mandatory to turn off the tap of industrial PFAS pollution by encouraging cutting PFAS from the production of many everyday items, and ramp up efforts to better identify and reduce the extent of PFAS contamination in drinking water across the U.S. 

This map shows the urgent need for such steps, especially for those communities facing disproportionately high risks.

Tell Congress: Stop the PFAS Contamination Crisis

We need your help to protect our environment from toxic PFAS chemicals.

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