fishing in a stream

Eating Great Lakes Fish Presents a Sobering Risk 

A new report expands on the Ecology Center's testing of freshwater fish for PFAS; finds alarming PFAS levels in Great Lakes freshwater fish with subsistence and cultural anglers at the highest risk

As a young boy growing up in Chesterfield, Michigan, Jerrad frolicked through his Anchor Bay playground. 

"Catching frogs, catching fish; I spent most of my time outdoors," said Jerrad. 

As an adult, Jerrad still spends a lot of time fishing. "I never really had to grow up," he said.

But this summer, he fished for a reason beyond food, fun, and friendship–he helped lead a PFAS pollution study alongside other anglers, the Ecology Center, Huron River Watershed Council, and Friends of the Rouge

Over the past year, we connected with six local anglers to collect fish samples from the Huron and Rouge rivers to test for PFAS. We and our partners began the study because of concerned that anglers didn’t have enough information about PFAS and that Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy could be doing more to educate anglers about the risks of PFAS in our local fisheries. While we put the final touches on our report to be released later this month, our fellow advocates at Environmental Working Group released a report with a similar analysis looking at PFAS levels in freshwater fish across the nation. 

EWG found PFAS were widely detected in fish across the United States. Seventy-four percent of the PFAS in fish was PFOS, a particularly hazardous PFAS compound phased out of production and use more than 20 years ago. Based on the data, researchers calculated eating one fish in a year equated to ingesting water with PFOS at 48 parts per trillion, or ppt, for one month. (The EPA drinking water health advisory for PFOS is 0.02 parts per trillion.) 

"People who consume freshwater fish, especially those who catch and eat fish regularly, are at risk of alarming levels of PFAS in their bodies," said David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist and one of the study's lead authors. "Growing up, I went fishing every week and ate those fish. But now, when I see fish, all I think about is PFAS contamination."

The researchers also found freshwater fish from the Great Lakes region had much higher PFAS levels than the national average (11,800 ng/kg versus 9,500 ng/kg, respectively). 

PFAS are everywhere, in the clothes we wear, the cookware we use, the makeup we apply, and the products we use to clean our houses. In the Great Lakes, a significant environmental source comes from manufacturing facilities, municipal landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and fire-fighting foams, particularly around military bases. These industries contaminate the surface water, which is then consumed or absorbed by wildlife, and subsequently ingested by humans.  

EWG also found that freshwater fish had, on average, 280 times more PFAS than commercial fish. So can we no longer safely fish for food? Not only is this a tragic and devastating finding for Great Lakes anglers and residents alike, but PFAS pollution is also an environmental justice crisis. In the United States, while about 17.6 million people are high freshwater fish consumers, most are Black, non-Hispanic people. Fishing is also a pivotal part of many Native American cultures. Further, many people depend on freshwater fish to feed their families. For example, many Burmese refugees fish in the Niagara River and local tributaries for food. A study conducted last year found the Burmese, who consumed on average 88 meals of locally caught fish per year, had five PFAS present in their blood at about six times that of the US population. 

Based on the data, the Environmental Working Group is calling for the end of industrial discharges of PFAS, noting there are an estimated 40,000 industrial polluters of PFAS in the US.  

“For decades, polluters have dumped as much PFAS as they wanted into our rivers, streams, lakes, and bays with impunity. We must turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from industrial discharges, which affect more and more Americans every day,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

For many anglers, fish harvest and consumption are about more than just food. And while restrictive fish consumption advisories can disrupt cultural and traditional relationships with the waters, fish, and wildlife, they also allow anglers to make informed decisions to balance the risks and benefits of consuming fish that contain PFAS and other toxins. 

For Jerrad, one of his favorite things was sharing his bounty: he'd save his catch and host a big fish fry.

"Now, I worry about what I've caught and shared," said Jerrad. "And if I can continue to share fish with my family."