A High Seafood Diet Could Increase Your Risk of Exposure to ‘Forever Chemicals’

Your favorite seafood may contain hazardous chemicals. 

A new study out of Dartmouth College determined that while seafood consumption has proven health benefits, it can also be a source of exposure to contaminants that are potentially dangerous to our health. 

The research, published as "Patterns of Seafood Consumption Among New Hampshire Residents Suggest Potential Exposure to Per‐ and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances" in the journal Exposure and Health, surveyed 1,829 New Hampshire residents on their seafood intake to analyze the impact on their health. In the most commonly consumed varieties — salmon, haddock, shrimp and canned tuna — researchers found 26 different forms of PFAS contaminating the fish and shellfish. Shellfish, including shrimp and lobster, had higher concentrations of PFAS than fish. 

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PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are also called forever chemicals, because they can live in the environment, including in our bodies, for thousands of years. Because they do not break down, PFAS consumed in food or beverage can be harmful to human and animal health. 

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has found that PFAS can negatively affect cholesterol, liver enzymes, the immune system, and vaccine response. It can also increase the risk of cancer and pose other risks to pregnant people and infants. Limiting exposure to PFAS in drinking water and avoiding consumer products known to be contaminated with PFAS can help curb the risks.

In the study, researchers found that New Hampshire residents ate more seafood than the average American. Those who consume a large quantity of seafood could be at risk of higher than recommended PFAS exposure, which is considered a hazard.  The good news for pescatarians and fish lovers? The study doesn’t suggest quitting aquatic foods altogether, but rather understanding the risks and benefits of enjoying seafood in order to make more informed dietary decisions. 

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“Seafood is an important source of nutrition, cultural heritage, and dietary preference for many people across the US and globally, and appropriately assessing PFAS exposure risk from seafood consumption is critical for developing public health messaging that appropriately weighs benefits and risks of consumption,” concludes the study. 

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Shellfish — including lobster and shrimp — were found to contain higher levels of forever chemicals. PEERADON WARITHKORASUTH / GETTY IMAGES
"Understanding this risk-benefit trade-off for seafood consumption is important for people making decisions about diet, especially for vulnerable populations such as pregnant people and children," said Megan Romano, a professor of epidemiology at Dartmouth and a corresponding author of the study.

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This is just another reason why eating like salmon, instead of eating actual salmon, may be considered healthier. Tiny fish live shorter lives, meaning the little guys, who often feast on plants and algae, are less exposed to aquatic toxins, as PFAS are shown to accumulate higher up on the food chain. 

A bit of good news for our water supply: $1 billion is going towards addressing PFAS in America’s drinking water. On April 10, the Biden-Harris Administration issued the first-ever national drinking water standard. 

Better late than never? The new rule and funding aims to make drinking water safer for 100 million Americans (the country has a population of over 333 million) by establishing legally enforceable levels for several PFAS known in drinking water, as determined by the EPA. 

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“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release. “That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide.” 

Water systems are global, and even with this seven-figure investment to ensure less than a third of Americans have ostensibly safer drinking water, much work and progress is still needed to improve the world’s waterways.

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