Unpacking the Risk of PFAS Exposure through Seafood Consumption

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by | Apr 16, 2024

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A Dartmouth-led study recently published in the journal Exposure and Health brings to light a pressing concern for businesses in the seafood industry and coastal communities: elevated risks of exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) through frequent seafood consumption. The findings suggest a significant underestimation of PFAS exposure among seafood lovers, pointing to an urgent need for revising public health advisories.

Understanding PFAS Risks in Coastal Diets

The research integrated an analysis of PFAS levels in fresh seafood with a comprehensive survey of dietary habits across New Hampshire. Given that national and regional data classify New Hampshire—and indeed the entire New England region—as some of the highest seafood consumers in the United States, this state provided a prime setting for investigating the degree of PFAS exposure through the consumption of marine species.

Megan Romano, an associate professor of epidemiology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, noted that there is a noticeable gap in the research regarding marine species, which are a staple in New England diets, and the gap is particularly relevant for states like New Hampshire, where seafood is deeply ingrained in the local culture.

Additionally, the study leveraged detailed data from New Hampshire concerning the origins and impacts of PFAS, chemicals widely used in consumer goods such as plastics and nonstick cookware. Their durability renders PFAS functional and makes them nearly indestructible, hence their nickname as “forever chemicals.” This persistence in the environment underscores the importance of understanding how PFAS accumulates in seafood that ends up on consumers’ plates.

Implications for Public Health and Industry Practices

The findings stress the importance of establishing public health guidelines for safe seafood consumption levels to minimize PFAS exposure. Federal guidelines exist for other contaminants like mercury, but none specifically address PFAS in seafood, which could affect vulnerable populations such as pregnant individuals and children the most.

This study highlights the need for enhanced scrutiny and potentially new practices in sourcing and selling seafood. Businesses operating in the sector may need to invest in or develop new technologies for detecting PFAS levels or adjust sourcing strategies to prioritize lower-risk species and waters. Additionally, more precise communication about the risks associated with certain seafood could become essential to consumer relations and marketing strategies.

As PFAS continues to pose a global environmental health challenge, understanding and mitigating risks associated with seafood consumption becomes crucial for public health and industry practices. Coastal businesses must navigate these challenges carefully, balancing the health benefits of seafood against the potential risks of PFAS exposure. Establishing more explicit guidelines and adopting best practices in seafood handling and sales will be essential in protecting both consumers and the viability of the seafood industry.

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