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‘Forever chemicals’ are contaminating Kentucky fish

Portia Weiss via unSplash

Forever chemicals are tainting Kentucky fish. 

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet released a study Friday that found the same kinds of chemicals used in Teflon pans in every single fish sampled in lakes and streams across the state. Researchers collected and tested fish including large and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, bluegill and sunfish. 

“As other states wrestle with these same issues, our agency thought it important to make these results known to the public so that they could make healthy choices when eating locally caught fish,” said Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman. 

The cabinet has undertaken an expansive, statewide testing regime since 2019 to understand how these chemicals are impacting the environment. They’ve found them practically everywhere they’ve looked. 

The chemicals have already been found throughout the Ohio River, in every major Kentucky watershed, and at unsafe levels in at least 38 drinking water systems

Forever chemicals describe a class of thousands of manufactured compounds used in everyday products including from food packaging, non-stick pans, firefighting foam, carpeting, clothing and cosmetics. 

Technically known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), they’re often called “forever chemicals” because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature and break down very slowly. 

DuPont and 3M began manufacturing PFAS chemicals in the 1950s. Today PFAS chemicals are found practically everywhere on the planet including in soil, air, water, food and in people’s blood

Peer-reviewed studies have found that exposure to certain levels of these chemicals can increase the risk of several cancers including prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They also may lead to decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, immunological disorders and increased cholesterol.  

The Energy and Environment Cabinet sampled 13 lakes and at least a half-dozen streams targeting fish species that people typically eat like bass and bluegill. 

Sampled Creek locations include Gunpowder Creek in Boone County, Otter Creek in Meade County, South Elkhorn Creek in Woodford County, West Hickman Creek in Jessamine County, a tributary of Elkhorn Creek in Fayette County, and Pond Creek in Jefferson County. 

The 13 lakes included Boltz Lake, Lake Carnico, Cave Run Lake, Cedar Creek Lake, Elmer Davis Lake, Fagan Branch Lake, Guist Creek Lake, Herrington Lake, Liberty City Lake, Sand Creek Lake, Shanty Hollow Lake, South Lake and West Fork Drakes Reservoir.

PFAS chemicals and health advisories

In June, the EPA dramatically lowered the lifetime health advisory standard for consumption of two particularly well-researched PFAS chemicals in drinking water to:

  • .004 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA
  • .02 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS

The health advisory does not carry the force of law and is only applicable to drinking water, not food, or surface waters like rivers and lakes. The drinking water advisory can however, help contextualize the risk people face in consuming PFAS chemicals. 

Energy and Environment Cabinet researchers found forever chemicals in all 98 fish tissue samples they recovered. They detected 17 different PFAS compounds in total. 

Researchers detected tissue concentrations for one chemical, PFOS, as high as 50 million ppt. 

The numbers get pretty big here, but if you compared the highest PFOS concentration to the drinking water advisory, that would be about 2.5 billion times the EPA’s recommended lifetime health advisory.  

The state has not revised its fish consumption guidelines despite the findings. 

Goodman with the EEC said in a statement the cabinet believes that the state’s current fish consumption guidelines are “reasonable and prudent.”

“It is important to note that this study covers only a small portion of the state’s waters. The cabinet will continue to make additional information available as additional testing is done,” she said. 

Fish consumption advisory

Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection has fish consumption advisories in place for other contaminants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and the pesticide chlordane, according to its website.

All of Kentucky’s waters are under an advisory for mercury as a result of emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industrial processes, according to the cabinet. 

Generally, people should not eat more than one meal of predatory fish per month and no more than one meal per week of panfish and bottom feeder fish, according to the state.

Sensitive populations including “women of childbearing age,” young children, pregnant or nursing people, should eat no more than six meals per year of predatory fish and no more than one meal per month of panfish and bottom feeder fish.

  • Predatory fish include some species of bass, sauger, walleye, some species of catfish and gar. 
  • Panfish include bluegill, crappie, rock bass and sunfish. 
  • Bottom feeders include some species of catfish, carp, sturgeon and chub. 

What the state and EPA are doing to regulate PFAS

Despite the negative health impacts of forever chemicals, there are currently no federal or state regulations limiting their use or consumption. 

Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville has at least twice introduced legislation requiring the Energy and Environment Cabinet to establish maximum PFAS limits for drinking water and industrial discharges. But neither bill was ever assigned to a committee. 

The EPA is working on a slew of regulations to better manage forever chemicals including plans to propose drinking water regulations this fall. It also proposed that two PFAS chemicals -- PFOS and PFOA -- be designated as hazardous substances in September. 

Recommendations to decrease the amount of PFAS in drinking water include activated carbon filters and a reserve osmosis water filter fitted to home sinks. The EPA also has recommendations, most of which involve getting more information about local PFAS levels from health departments, water companies and state environment offices. 

Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection plans to continue monitoring fish for PFAS contamination over the next two years to provide the public with additional information to make informed decisions, according to the report. 

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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