PFAS part one: What are PFAS and how are they impacting marine ecosystems?

Many commercial and industrial products depend on synthetic compounds for their unique chemical properties. One widely used class of waterproof and fat-repellent compounds, known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), can be found in everything from non-stick coatings for cookware to fire-extinguishing foam. While they were first developed in the 1930s, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences estimates that over 4,700 PFAS exist today.

via Maciej Wodzynski (Unsplash)

However, despite their popularity, public concern surrounding PFAS contamination has grown in recent years, due to human health studies linking drinking water contamination to autoimmune disorders and other conditions. Although chemical manufacturers have been aware of the dangerous side effects associated with PFAS exposure for over 40 years, they are still widely used and continue to contaminate communities and the environment. Although most research has been geared towards health impacts on humans, similar effects have been observed with animals.

PFAS have contaminated groundwater, rivers, and oceans worldwide through runoff and air emissions. High exposure areas include locations near chemical manufacturing and processing plants, military bases, and wastewater treatment sites. However, the compounds are also present in remote areas within the environment and within organisms, including ringed and grey seals in the Arctic. Most regions are contaminated in lower concentrations from long-range transport through oceans and the atmosphere.

One of the “miracle” properties of PFAS is their highly stable chemical bonds that leave them resistant to breaking down. While this makes them industrially useful, it also allows them to persist and accumulate in the environment and within organisms. As a result, the most severe health impacts tend to occur in organisms at the top of the food chain. Recent research has provided insight on how PFAS may impact marine ecosystems:

  • PFAS in North Shore birds – Shearwaters in Massachusetts Bay, who live offshore and rarely travel inland, were found dead with high concentrations of PFAS compounds in their livers. The same compounds were found in seabirds in Cape Fear, indicating that PFAS travel long distances. PFAS are expected to negatively impact reproductive health in seabirds.

  • Immunotoxicity in mussels – Four different PFAS compounds were tested within green mussels, and higher concentrations were associated with up to 50% decreased immune function. The researchers note that an upper threshold may exist that results in complete immune shutdown within marine organisms.

  • Liver damage and immune response in fish – At a site near a wastewater treatment plant that discharges into the Atlantic Ocean, researchers noted decreased enzymatic function in the liver, cellular damage, and decreased immune function in bass. Bioaccumulation in marine and estuarine fish is of significant concern for humans and piscivorous predators since PFAS concentrations magnify through trophic levels.

  • Chronic immune activation in dolphins– Multiple studies on bottlenose dolphins show that chronic exposure to PFAS leads to elevated autoimmune responses and tissue toxicity. One case study in South Carolina also identified potential impacts on kidney and liver function.

  • Threats to aquatic invertebrates and algae– Elevated levels of PFAS decrease algal biomass