Animals are contaminated with hazardous forever chemicals on every continent except Antarctica, according to a new report.
Creatures ranging from tigers and polar bears, to red pandas and voles, to plankton in the sea, are likely accumulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by eating fish, drinking water, or simply breathing air, and it could put them at risk.
PFAS can be found in tons of manufactured goods, from food packaging and clothing, to firefighting foam and (formerly) Teflon pans.
Though they’re useful for resisting water, heat, and stains, PFAS do not break down in the environment, earning them the “forever chemicals” nickname.
Rainfall and soil across the planet may contain unsafe levels of the substances.
That has led to widespread contamination of living creatures, according to a report published Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit specializing in research and advocacy on household chemicals.
Researchers there gathered 125 peer-reviewed studies that tested wildlife for PFAS over the last five years. Not a single study in the assessment failed to detect PFAS in the animals, birds, or fish tested, according to David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG.
Many of the studies were testing near a known PFAS site, such as a firefighting base or industrial facility.
But often, Andrews said, those studies couldn’t find an uncontaminated animal population to serve as a control group — a baseline far from the site for comparison.
“This is really a global contamination issue, and it’s likely impacting wildlife everywhere,” he told Insider.
Wildlife worldwide struggle against habitat loss, climate change, and sometimes poaching. The new report suggests that contamination from forever chemicals may pose yet another threat to many species’ survival.
PFAS could pose a threat to animals’ health
The impacts of PFAS on animals’ health are not well-studied, but for humans, research has linked exposure to the chemicals with some cancers, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, developmental delays, liver damage, high cholesterol, and reduced immune responses.
As a result, the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the two most notorious PFAS as “hazardous substances” and is working on rules for reducing their presence in drinking water.
Andrews fears animals across the globe could face similar health risks to PFAS-drinking humans.
Some research hints at this. One study in North Carolina found alligators with high blood levels of PFAS showed signs of weakened immune systems.
More research is needed to understand the stakes.
Just as studies in rats can’t predict human health outcomes, studies in alligators can’t predict polar bear health outcomes.
“There’s definitely some uncertainty and likely some variation between species in terms of how these chemicals are causing harm,” Andrews said. “That is also a unique aspect of these chemicals: how many different parts of the body and our biology they can impact and cause harm to.”
Phasing out forever chemicals is a slow process so far
US manufacturers have already phased out a few PFAS, but many of the thousands of varieties are still in use. Andrews called for replacing them with alternative substances.
At the same time, industrial facilities are burping PFAS into the air and leaking them into waterways. Cleaning up these emission sites is key to stopping more forever chemicals from building in the environment.
Last month the European Union released a proposal to ban the production, sale, and use of 10,000 PFAS. The proposal is currently under assessment.
In the US, the EPA expects to publish a national drinking-water regulation for PFAS by the end of 2023, including an enforceable maximum contamination limit.
“It will take regulatory action to move the entire market and country away from dependence on these chemicals,” Andrews said.