/ 3 March 2023

‘Forever chemicals’ found in wildlife – report

Researchers have found the chemicals in a range of species such as scorpions, pandas, Siberian tigers, turtles, horses, dogs, plankton, sea lions, wild boar, otters and oysters. (Photo by Sercan Kucuksahin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The US-based Environment Working Group (EWG) has found more than 300 animals have been contaminated by “forever chemicals” globally. 

The EWG used a first-of-its-kind map to show how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ biomonitoring programme — pose a threat to wildlife. 

Forever chemicals do not break down over time, and so remain in the soil, air and water and are harmful. 

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, PFAS are “ingredients in everyday products. They are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective.”

Researchers have found the chemicals in a range of species such as scorpions, pandas, Siberian tigers, turtles, horses, dogs, plankton, sea lions, wild boar, otters and oysters. EWG scientist David Andrews told The Guardian that the breadth of the contamination is “sobering”.

The effect of these chemicals on animals is largely understudied but in people they are associated with some cancers, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, developmental delays, liver damage and high cholesterol, according to Science Alert

Some research has found there are links to autoimmune disorders in some alligators and some sea turtles. 

“From country to country, across continents, PFAS pollution is everywhere. No matter the location, no matter the species, nearly every time that testing is done we find contamination from these toxic chemicals. And the EWG map reflects just what we know now — given the extent of PFAS pollution, wildlife in many other locations around the world are likely contaminated,” says the EWG. 

In South Africa, two studies have reported on the presence and concentrations of PFAS in river water and sediments. 

This suggests that there is a need for more research on these pollutants and their occurrence in South African water resources and sediments for a better understanding, according to researchers. 

A 2020 study showed that PFAS concentrations were found in the Roodeplaat and Hartbeespoort dams.

Gabriella Leighton, a post-doctoral fellow at Rhodes University, and Jacqueline Bishop, a lecturer in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town, say caracals, which are the largest remaining predators in Cape Town, are in danger of “forever chemicals” because of their diet. They feed mainly on wild species such as guinea fowl and vlei rats, which are likely to have been contaminated.

“Caracals hunting in Cape Town’s vineyards, where prey is abundant, are also likely to be exposed to a cocktail of highly toxic anticoagulant rodenticides.” 

The authors say many animals have adapted to cities around the world and that has forced them to be in contact with invisible pollutants.

“To make cities around the world safer, cleaner places, the use of ‘forever chemicals’ must be reduced in line with existing international agreements. Citizens can reduce their own pesticide use too, particularly the use of rat poison. Cleaning up urban wetlands and restoring them could go a long way to removing pollutants from the environment.”

Humans can come into contact with PFAS by drinking contaminated water, consuming food that may be contaminated by PFAS or even clothes that may have traces of PFAS.  

“With concerns over the presence of harmful chemicals like PFAS and BPA growing globally, manufacturers of clothing and textiles need to ensure their products remain compliant with the relevant regulations in their target markets” says one of the world’s leading testing, inspection and certification companies.

The EWG also says that there needs to be regulatory measures put in place to protect wildlife from PFAS contamination. 

In the US, federal agencies have committed to turning off the tap on PFAS pollution by curbing industrial discharges. But many of these actions have been delayed and may not be effective for years. The EWG says some states are already tackling PFAS pollution rather than waiting for the federal government.