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PFAS chemicals likely from JBCC found in local fish and shellfish 

Northern quahog clams harvested in Greenwich, Connecticut.
NOAA Fisheries/Julie Rose
Northern quahog clams harvested in Greenwich, Connecticut. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Julie Rose

Researchers have found toxic PFAS chemicals in more than a hundred fish samples collected across the Upper Cape. They’re now joining with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in an effort to open up the findings to the public.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been linked to cancer, infertility, higher cholesterol, and other serious health problems.

Heidi Pickard, a researcher at Harvard University, said on Sunday she’ll present and answer questions about how this class of thousands of chemicals has contaminated fish and shellfish on Cape Cod.

“Over the last few years, I've been conducting a lot of different analyses and interpreting data to understand what is being taken up into these fish,” Pickard said, “particularly not just looking at the commonly measured PFAS, but trying to understand everything that is there. Are we underestimating potential exposures if we don’t account for these less routinely measured PFAS?“

The Findings

In 2021, Pickard and other researchers from STEEP, a partnership of the University of Rhode Island, Harvard University, and the Silent Spring Institute, measured PFAS in 114 samples of fish and shellfish from Waquoit Bay, Moody Pond, and the Quashnet and Santuit Rivers.

They found the so-called “forever chemicals” in all samples, but they were highest in fish and shellfish found closer to Joint Base Cape Cod (JBCC), where the military spent decades spraying firefighting foam that was made with PFAS.

“The firefighting foam … was mostly used in the 70s and 80s, and one additional application in 1997 at the base,” Pickard said. “This is decades later that you're still seeing high levels in the fish.”

Pickard said for people who consume fish at least once a week, most fish samples exceeded the state’s fish consumption advisory for PFOS, one specific PFAS chemical.

In general, shellfish had lower PFAS levels compared to finfish.

Quahogs were the only species sampled from multiple locations with PFOS levels below the consumption guideline for one-meal-per-week consumption rates.

The species with the highest levels of PFAS were American eel, bluegill sunfish, redear sunfish, and white sucker.

Compared to whole body samples, fish filets (muscle) contained lower PFAS concentrations.

Researchers said they did not see larger fish having higher PFAS levels than smaller fish of the same species, nor did they see higher levels of PFAS in fish higher on the food chain.

The Event

Pickard will share these findings on Sunday in the gymnasium of the Tribal Government Center. The address is 483 Great Neck Rd South, Mashpee, MA 02649.

The 2-hour event beginning at 11:30 will also include a panel discussion and film screening of Bloomberg’s “The Poison In Us All.” 

It’ll be an opportunity to discuss PFAS chemicals more generally. Though retailers are beginning to use firefighting foams that use no PFAS at all, the chemicals can still be found in thousands of consumer products, including carpets, pans, food packaging, and more.

The panelists will address what can be done to limit exposure. They include Rainer Lohmann, professor at the University of Rhode Island, Dr. Laurel Schaider, senior scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, Heidi Pickard, PhD Candidate at Harvard University, and Jason Steiding, director of Natural Resources for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

For now, experts say sensitive populations, such as young children, pregnant women, or women who may become pregnant, may be more at risk to PFAS.

To limit exposure from fish, researchers encourage locals to choose fishing locations near open water (Waquoit Bay or the Quashnet Outflow into Waquoit Bay) or that are further from Joint Base Cape Cod.

They also say choosing shellfish like Quahogs, or eating filets could be safer than the whole body of a fish.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.