The Great Lakes region is potentially facing one of the most serious threats from a family of toxic chemicals in recent memory -per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs).

  • Jim Murphy, Director of Legal Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation
  • Jun 14, 2023

PFAS (which stands for Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) are known as “forever chemicals” for a reason. These toxic substances remain in the environment indefinitely, threatening water, wildlife, and people. PFAS chemicals are in everything from baby products and toothpaste to the water-proofing in outdoor clothing and the non-stick in pans. PFAS chemicals have entered our air, soil, crops, and waters through sources such as industrial discharges from manufacturing facilities, military bases, airports, wastewater treatment plants, petroleum refineries, and areas where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. They have also been found in biosolids that are applied to fields, impacting dairy producers as cows graze infected fields and PFAS levels bioaccumulate.

PFAS can be toxic in low doses – just a few parts per trillion. Once these “forever chemicals” enter the environment, they accumulate in fish and wildlife across the nation. They are found in the blood of most people in the United States. PFAS contamination exposes people and wildlife to serious health risks, including cancers, impacts to the immune and reproductive systems, and other harms. 

Kayak on lake

These substances are routinely found in in wildlife species from bluegills to great blue herons to deer. EPA studies show that nearly all freshwater fish in the United States have detectable levels of PFAS contamination. Another study showed that the consumption of just a single serving of freshwater fish per year could be equal to a month of drinking water laced with the PFOS (a common type of PFAS) at high levels. 

Elevated levels of PFAS in wildlife impact recreational and subsistence hunting. People who consume freshwater fish or game, particularly those in communities that depend on fishing or hunting for sustenance or for cultural practices, are particularly at risk from high PFAS exposure. The same goes for wildlife that consume prey contaminated with PFAS, bioaccumulating up the food chain. 

Fisherman with catch

While several states have taken action to limit PFAS pollution, federal action has been slow in coming. Now, the EPA has put forward a comprehensive roadmap to address PFAS at the federal level and has already taken some key steps. For example, EPA recently proposed a rule to place safety limits on six PFAS in drinking water systems with a goal of eliminating them entirely. EPA has also proposed to list two PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law and is asking for comment on whether it should also propose a rule to add seven more PFAS chemicals to the list. This would ensure that more PFAS contaminated sites get cleaned up and that those responsible for the pollution can be held accountable for the cost. EPA has additionally given states guidance on how to address discharges of PFAS into their surface waters. Additionally, funding from the bi-partisan infrastructure law has been allocated to help disadvantaged communities often hit hardest by PFAS address clean up in their waters. 

More needs to be done, including setting standards for water quality criteria for PFAS and ensuring that PFAS is monitored in fish tissue and advisories are given so that anglers know whether fish consumption is safe. 

NWF is committed to keeping people and wildlife safe from PFAS contamination. We should be able to drink water out of our taps or eat the fish we catch without worry.

Jim Murphy is the Director of Legal Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation where he coordinates legal advocacy across the Federation’s national programs with a focus on renewable energy and clean water. He has been with the National Wildlife Federation since 2003, having worked on environmental issues such as endangered species, and the National Environmental Policy Act. He has represented the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups in several precedent setting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Circuit Courts. He has been extensively published in law reviews and other legal publications on issues such as water policy and law, transportation and smart growth, and energy production.


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