ALEXANDRIA BAY, N.Y. (WWTI) — Are fish in the St. Lawrence River becoming toxic to eat?

New research has found that some freshwater fish across the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are contaminated with toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.

PFAS are manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1940s in products such as non-stick pans, textiles, foam packaging and fire suppression materials.

The chemicals have known human health impacts, according to Clarkson University Graduate School Dean and Technology Transfer Interim Vice President Michelle Crimi. Humans can be exposed to PFAS by ingesting contaminated food and water.

“Some of the associations that have been made with the PFAS exposures and human health effects include things like developmental delays in growing fetuses,” Crimi explained. “Different types of cancers have been associated with PFAS exposures like testicular cancer and kidney cancer. Some live impacts, as well as some impacts on the immune system.”

Recent research from Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fish serving can be equivalent to a month’s worth of PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

This study analyzed data from over 500 samples of fish fillets collected across the Great Lakes from 2013 to 2015.

However, Crimi said this is not a reason to immediately stop eating fish caught in the region as scientists are still working to analyze the data.

“We really need the data to help us understand that uncertainty and to help us know what we truly need to be concerned about,” Crimi explained.

But environmental organizations are on high alert as scientists consider PFAS to be “forever chemicals,” meaning that they remain in an environment until destroyed by human-made technologies.

“It’s another indicator of legacy chemicals that are in the [St. Lawrence River], that are in the water, they are getting into the fish, they are getting into the bird, they are getting into the humans,” Save The River Executive Director John Peach stressed.

Organizations like Save The River have worked to bring attention to the issue as the St. Lawrence River is one of the top freshwater fisheries in the world.

“It’s just such an important part of our culture up here,” Peach expressed. “Everyone fishes. I’ve grown up fishing on the St. Lawrence River. I’ve taught my children, now my grandkids to fish on the River. We eat the fish.”

“We’ve got to find alternatives. We’ve got to stop using these materials. We’ve got to quit dumping them into the River,” he added.

Solutions may be on the horizon. Several scientific research teams at Clarkson University are working on an array of PFAS-destroying methods that could be used locally.

This includes Crimi, who has focused her research on eliminating PFAS in groundwater.

“That will destroy PFAS directly in groundwater, we don’t have to pull all this water up above ground, treat it above ground and then put it all back,” Crimi explains. “We also have colleagues working on low-cost sensors. We have a world-class analytical lab here at Clarkson. It takes a great deal of expertise. That instrumentation is really specialized and we could measure PFAS at very low concentrations with a great deal of accuracy.”

Additional methods being studied at Clarkson include plasma and ball-milling treatments as well as improved sorbets to get PFAS out of the environment.

But there are still many unknowns as scientists race to understand the toxic chemicals and how truly dangerous they are to humans and the environment. So it will take time to find ways to destroy these “forever” toxins once and for all.

“They’re hard to treat, they are hard to break down. They were made to not break down,” Crimi shared. “But there are ways to make it happen. So I think through research, we can start calling them forever no more.”

The full research study referred to in this article can be read here.