Wildlife species worldwide exposed to ‘forever chemicals,’ survey shows
Wildlife from around the world — from polar bears, to monkeys, to dolphins — may be exposed to cancer-linked “forever chemicals,” a new survey has found.
A comprehensive map curated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a window into just how many kinds of animals, including some that are endangered or threatened, may be contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Hundreds of studies have already identified these so-called forever chemicals in wildlife populations around the world, but the new map aims to consolidate that research into one interactive, accessible venue, according to EWG.
David Andrews, a senior EWG scientist, expressed his initial surprise at lack of any unified database for the “incredible amount of research that’s been done globally, documenting PFAS contamination in wildlife.”
“Everything from studies of crocodiles in South Africa, ticks in New York State and along the East Coast and scorpions in the Midwest,” Andrews told The Hill, listing animals whose exposure levels have been tested.
While the most common type of animals to appear on the map are fish, the data also includes many birds, as well as both land and aquatic mammals, according to Andrews.
The work builds upon an EWG study released in January that showed the extent to which PFAS are contaminating U.S. freshwater fish from coast to coast, the group explained.
In humans, scientists have linked PFAS exposure to many illnesses, such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease. True to their nickname, forever chemicals are notorious for their ability to persist in the body and in the environment.
Known for their presence in both industrial discharge and jet fuel firefighting foam, these synthetic substances are also found in common household products, including nonstick pans and waterproof apparel.
Among the more than 330 species identified on the EWG map are polar bears, tigers, monkeys, pandas, horses, cats, otters, squirrels and other small and large mammals. Also exposed are many types of fish, birds, reptiles, frogs and other amphibians.
“From country to country, and across continents, PFAS pollution is everywhere,” a statement from EWG said. “No matter the location, no matter the species, nearly every time that testing is done we find contamination from these toxic chemicals.”
The researchers emphasized that the map is by no means an exhaustive list of all studies on animal exposure to PFAS and that it doesn’t reflect the totality of contamination worldwide.
But it does show that more than 120 different types of PFAS compounds — of which there are thousands — have been found in the animals that have been studied.
Although definitive health impacts have thus far only been demonstrated in humans, EWG researchers noted that science suggests that wildlife could suffer from similar effects.
Such consequences could be of particular concern for threatened species, who are already contending with problems like habitat loss and ecosystem destruction, according to EWG.
The map depicts how global PFAS exposure knows no limits — geolocating studies of birds, beluga whales, polar bears, dolphins and seals in places as remote as the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and on the shores of Greenland.
“It highlights the extent that these chemicals can be transported,” Andrews said.
The contaminants also show now respect for international boundaries. Tilapia and perch that inhabit the Nile River — which runs through a variety of countries — had measurable levels of PFAS in multiple studies.
“A lot of this is cross-border, and as far as we know, pretty much everywhere you test for PFAS contamination, you will find it,” Andrews said.
While the pollution is pervasive and reaches almost every corner of the world, Andrews stressed the importance of acting on the issue at the national level.
“No one country can fix this problem,” he said. “But at the same time, countries like the United States can take a leading effort in researching, identifying alternatives and moving the market away from the chemistry.”
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