Every fish tested in two Southeast Michigan rivers contains toxic PFAS
Map: In a newly released study, every fish tested in the Huron River, which is the main drinking water source for the city of Ann Arbor, contained toxic PFAS chemicals. Credit: All photos and graphics courtesy of the Ecology Center, which will host a webinar on March 16 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the science behind the PFAS study.
A study of fish caught in the Huron and Rouge River watersheds in Southeast Michigan found that every fish tested had measurable concentrations of at least one in a family of chemicals known as PFAS, raising critical questions about state and federal environmental health policies.
Organized by the Ecology Center, the Huron River Watershed Council and Friends of the Rouge, the study released in late February involved six local anglers who partnered with the groups in catching the fish in 2022. They caught more than 100 fish from 15 sites in the Huron and Rouge River watersheds. These anglers had a hand in designing the research questions, collecting samples for the study, processing the fish, and discussing the results and education strategies for fellow anglers.
Every fish tested had measurable concentrations of at least one in a family of chemicals known as PFAS, raising critical questions about state and federal environmental health policies.
The Dangers of PFAS
PFAS, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Fluoropolymer coatings are used in clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire. Many PFAS chemicals, such as PFOS and PFOA, do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources, and build up in fish and wildlife.
It’s deeply troubling because PFAS have links to cancer, liver damage, birth defects and autoimmune diseases. The State of Michigan says that touching fish or water containing PFAS, and swimming in these water bodies, is not considered a health concern as PFAS do not move easily through the skin.
Of the fish tested in the study, the estimated highest filet concentrations were 47 parts per billion for the Huron, and 12 parts per billion for the Rouge, above the levels at which the State of Michigan advises limiting consumption to two (Huron) and 12 (Rouge) meals per month. The state currently issues DO NOT EAT fish consumption advisories if PFOS (one type of PFAS) is found at greater than 300 parts per billion level in fish.
Many PFAS chemicals, such as PFOS and PFOA, do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources, and build up in fish and wildlife.
One of the key concerns raised by the study is concern about subsistence anglers. Some fish the rivers for a food staple, not for sport. There are health benefits to a diet abundant in fish, but PFAS also raise health risks.
Ecology Center Leadership
Erica Bloom, Toxics Campaign Manager for the Ecology Center, says her organization does not recommend that subsistence anglers completely stop from eating fish from the sampled rivers, although the state Department of Health and Human Services should lower the threshold at which it issues advisories for PFOS.
“We still are recommending anglers follow Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish Guidelines. For a lot of people fishing is an important cultural practice and source of nourishment, so we want to respect that it’s not simple for many people to just stop consuming local fish. But we also want people to know the risks associated with eating fish with PFAS and make informed decisions about their consumption.”
One of the key concerns is that some people fish the rivers for a food staple, not for sport. There are health benefits to a diet abundant in fish, but PFAS also raise health risks.
Bloom adds, “The Eat Safe Fish Guide offers ways to prepare and eat fish that limit exposure. The guide also alerts more sensitive demographics about frequency and quantity to consume fish, such as health compromised people, people planning on having children, and those who regularly consume fish from a fish consumption advisory area.”
The only real solution to the PFAS contamination problem is the regulation and elimination of the use and release of the chemicals.
“We don’t want to wait until all the health studies are done to document that these chemicals pose real health risks. Instead, we want the state of Michigan and the federal government to take a precautionary approach. We are calling on the State of Michigan to regulate PFAS as a class of hazardous chemicals,” Bloom said.
The Ecology Center supports a comprehensive phase out of all PFAS chemicals in products except where no safer alternative yet exists. U.S. Senator Gary Peters, of Michigan, today in a bipartisan push, called on the Federal Aviation Administration to expedite a plan to transition to firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS, which has been found in drinking water across the country, often in proximity to airports.
Urging Anglers to Join the Fight
“We want anglers to understand that PFAS are still being manufactured, produced, and ending up in Michigan watersheds,” Bloom says.
“We want anglers to understand that PFAS are still being manufactured, produced, and ending up in Michigan watersheds,” said Erica Bloom, Toxics Campaign Manager for the Ecology Center. “We want anglers to show up and get involved in this fight.”
Bloom says, “PFAS will continue to be a public health threat and threat to fish and wildlife, unless we fundamentally change the way we regulate the entire chemical class. Anglers, especially subsistence anglers, have a particularly unique perspective and stake in advocating for changes and action from government bodies. We want anglers to show up and get involved in this fight.”
Learn More and Take Action
The Ecology Center’s Bloom encourages those interested in getting active on the issue to find more information from the Ecology Center and the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. Also see this previous coverage by FLOW: PFAS in the Huron River: Every Mile, Every Fish, Every Day and information on PFAS contamination and response from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which just proposed the first-ever national standard to limit PFAS in drinking water, will host a March 29 webinar for the public on this proposed standard.