A fish-consumption advisory from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows an industrial chemical named in an EPA health advisory continues to be a problem for some fish grounds in the area.
The department maintained its advisory that residents limit their consumption of fish species taken from Bakers Creek at Wheeler Reservoir to one meal per month due to the presence of PFOS, or perfluoralkyl sulfonate, in fish samples taken from the creek.
It also maintained its advisory that largemouth bass taken from specific locations of the river, downstream from Decatur, in Morgan and Limestone counties, be limited to one meal per month due to the presence of PFOS.
The industrial chemical, which was once discharged into Bakers Creek but is no longer in use by manufacturers, does not degrade easily in the environment and tends to accumulate in blood serum, the kidneys and the liver when ingested, ADPH said. The advisory defines a meal as 6 ounces of cooked fish or 8 ounces of raw fish.
The department noted limited studies have suggested fish consumption may be a source of PFOS exposure in humans and that some studies have shown an association between PFOS exposure and adverse health effects.
Dr. Scott Harris, assistant state health officer for Public Health Area 2, said the advisory report is released annually “so residents can have all the best knowledge that we have and then make their own best decisions about their health.”
Residents who choose to take the risk and eat the fish are free to do so, he said.
PFOS and a related industrial chemical, PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, have been the subject of significant public debate since the Environmental Protection Agency classified long-term consumption of the two chemicals together in drinking water as a possible human health hazard, even at low levels.
The EPA health advisory resulted in the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority issuing a temporary no-drink order last summer and has led to multiple lawsuits against 3M Co. and other manufacturers that once used the chemicals.
Chemically similar, PFOS and PFOA are both members of a class of chemicals known as PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals once used in the manufacture of nonstick surfaces and other products.
ADPH specified in its report that while human toxicity of PFOS is not well understood, PFOS is not considered to be a human carcinogen.
That’s a departure from EPA literature published last year that said studies on animals and human populations exposed to PFAS chemicals showed exposure above certain levels may cause a host or problems, including testicular and kidney cancer, as well as liver damage, immune system effects, thyroid effects and cholesterol changes.
Harris said the most significant human study to date, which looked at the effects of PFOA exposure on populations around a DuPont plant in West Virginia, found an association between living in the area and certain types of cancer and other health problems, but it was not enough to classify PFAS chemicals as carcinogens.
“Statistical association does not prove causation,” he said, noting it was not clear that some other factors had not influenced health outcomes.
In response to the latest fish advisory, David Whiteside, executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said chemicals would remain in fish populations until the chemicals are removed from the river.
“The only way to get them out of the Tennessee River is to force the responsible parties to remove them,” he said.
Whiteside said the cleanup likely would involve dredging to remove the chemicals from sediment. Riverkeeper is suing 3M Co. and its subsidiary Dyneon LLC, along with Daikin America, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, and the city of Decatur, seeking a court order that they clean up PFAS contamination from the river. The federal district court on Monday scheduled a Jan. 23, 2019, pretrial conference and a March 4, 2019, trial date.
Under a voluntary agreement between the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and 3M, the company has been working to clean up PFAS contamination on its 864-acre campus in Decatur since 2006. The work is expected to continue through 2019 and has cost the company more than $65 million to date.
Whiteside said the remediation plan is not enough, because it does nothing to address contamination already in the river.
This week’s ADPH advisory is an improvement from 2012, when the department advised that no fish should be eaten from Baker’s Creek. The advisory included some areas with no-consumption advisories due to the presence of mercury.
“These advisories indicate good news for the local environment — they continue to recognize a downgrade from a ‘no consumption’ advisory that existed in this location as recently as 2012,” said William Brewer III, counsel for 3M. “... The environmental presence of these chemicals presents no harm to human health at the levels they are found in the local environment, period.
“3M will continue to work closely with state regulators on environmental remediation activities. This work focuses on areas that are in close proximity to 3M’s Decatur operations.”