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How Widespread Are These Toxic Chemicals? They’re Everywhere.

Researchers created a map showing where PFAS compounds, linked to cancer in humans, have been detected in wildlife. It spans the globe.

Polar bears in the Arctic and plankton in the Pacific. Cardinals in Atlanta and crocodiles in South Africa.

While concern about PFAS compounds, also known as “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly, has largely focused on people, the pollutants have also been detected in wildlife. Now, a review of research made public on Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization that focuses on environmental safety, shows PFAS turning up in hundreds of wild animal species around the world.

“We were like, ‘Holy smokes, this is shocking,’” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the organization who worked on the review, recalling his team’s surprise at the sheer number and spread of studies documenting contamination.

With many wild animal and plant species already staggering under a worsening biodiversity crisis driven by habitat loss, hunting and fishing, climate change and other pressures, scientists say they are increasingly worried about the added burden of PFAS contamination.

“These chemicals are likely serving as an additional stressor,” Dr. Andrews said.

Formally called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals are created by fusing fluorine and carbon atoms to create a compound that doesn’t exist naturally. Because many of these chemicals break down very slowly, they tend to accumulate up the food chain.

Manufacturers counter that not all PFAS compounds are the same.

Researchers working in the field already knew them to be widespread in wildlife.

“PFAS are everywhere and in most animals surveyed,” said Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who focuses on PFAS contamination and was not involved in the Environmental Working Group’s review. “But collecting that information and putting it together is a huge effort. And I am not sure the general public is fully aware how thoroughly these chemicals have penetrated the environment.”

Dr. Lohmann noted that areas on the map that seem to have less contamination — Africa, South America and much of Asia — probably just appear that way because of a lack of studies conducted in those places.

The map of global PFAS contamination would be even more dramatic and revealing, he said, if it included plants and algae.

Category: Science

Source: NYTimes Science

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