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Your Environment. Your Health.

PFAS Profiles in Seabirds Point to a Shift in Chemical Production

Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D.
University of Rhode Island

Seabird tissue samples contain high levels of both legacy and emerging per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), according to NIEHS-funded researchers. Study results reflect the shift toward production of new PFAS to replace legacy chemicals. PFAS are a large group of manmade chemicals. Due to their environmental persistence and known impacts on human health, many legacy PFAS have been phased-out of production.

The researchers used seabirds as indicators of environmental PFAS contamination. They measured 36 PFAS in the livers of 31 juvenile seabirds found dead off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina. They also assessed bird phospholipid liver content, which plays a key role in metabolism and reproduction.

Nearly all birds had high levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) despite phase-out of the chemical in the early 2000s. The researchers identified, for the first time, three novel PFAS compounds manufactured in recent years to replace legacy PFAS. These novel PFAS were mainly found in birds near a PFAS production site. However, they were also present in birds with no connection to that site, suggesting the novel chemicals can travel long distances in the environment. Birds with higher PFOS had lower liver phospholipid content, a previously unreported finding.

Study results confirm the persistence of legacy PFAS the environment and reflect a shift in the types of PFAS in production. According to the authors, understanding PFAS levels in the environment ultimately stands to benefit public health, as humans rely on the same air, water, and land systems that sustain wildlife.

Citation: Robuck AR, Cantwell MG, McCord JP, Addison LM, Pfohl M, Strynar MJ, McKinney R, Katz DR, Wiley DN, Lohmann R. 2020. Legacy and novel per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in juvenile seabirds from the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Environ Sci Technol 54(20):12938-12948.

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