High seafood diets may raise the risk of exposure to forever chemicals

  • A new study found concerning levels of toxic PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in seafood.
  • PFAS are found in many foods, household, and personal products and are widely present in the environment.
  • These human-made substances are the focus of a growing body of research given their potential toxicity and associations with serious health issues.
  • The authors of the study do not suggest people stop eating seafood but urge more research into the effects of these chemicals in humans.

Per- and polyfuoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of human-made chemicals that are considered “forever chemicals” because they remain in the environment for a long time.

Research into the effects of PFAS in humans is ongoing, as exposure to these chemicals has been associated with a range of serious health conditions.

Certain foods may contain forever chemicals, and depending where you live, your drinking water may contain PFAS. Forever chemicals are also found in some types of food packaging.

Now, research shows the risk of PFAS exposure is even greater for people who consume a heavy-seafood diet.

The study’s authors do not suggest people should avoid eating fish entirely, since seafood has many health benefits and PFAS are so ubiquitous in the environment, in general.

The study’s findings were published April 12 in the journal Exposure and Health.

The researchers investigated the eating habits and PFAS exposure of people living in Portsmouth, NH, an area in which seafood consumption is especially popular. The study consisted of two parts.

The researchers conducted a survey of 1,829 NH residents in June 2021 to learn the types of seafood they were consuming and how much. Included in the survey was seafood consumption data from adults and children ages 2–11.

Among the adults, 95% reported eating seafood within the last year, most often:

Researchers also purchased and analyzed a “seafood basket” of the most commonly consumed types of seafood from a Portsmouth market for analysis and detected 26 types of PFAS compounds in the purchased foods.

For shrimp and lobster, concentrations of PFAS ranged from below the limit of detection to 1.74 and 3.30 ng/g, respectively.

These findings suggest that people who eat a lot of seafood could, therefore, consume additional PFAS concentrations.

Other than their toxicity, much remains unknown about the effects of PFAS at this time.

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends reducing your exposure to PFAS as much as you can.

The study’s senior investigator, Megan Romano, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, explained to Medical News Today that PFAS are “a large family of highly persistent, human-made chemicals that feature a carbon-fluorine backbone.”

They date back nearly eight decades and are used in various water, stain, or grease-resistant consumer products.

“PFAS influence a wide range of biological systems within the body and have a wide range of adverse health impacts,” Romano said.

“We are learning more about the health effects of PFAS every day, but research has demonstrated associations of PFAS with higher cholesterol levels, small decreases in birth weight, pregnancy-induced hypertension, a reduced antibody response to vaccines, and even kidney and testicular cancer.”

— Megan Romano, PhD, senior study investigator

Registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick, who was not involved in the study, explained how PFAS find their way into the human body.

“[PFAS] can also be found in cleaning solutions, nonstick cookware, and even personal products,” Kirkpatrick told MNT.

“However, the main exposure route, according to assessments, is most likely to be in individuals who work in industries where access is greater, and may be more likely to have high exposure than the general population,” She added.

“There have also been higher cases in communities where drinking water was contaminated with [PFAS] as well as foods that are grown or live in areas with higher [PFAS] levels,” Kirkpatrick said.

Romano noted that in the United States, people may be exposed to PFAS through drinking water and their diet.

“Dietary sources of PFAS include seafood, but PFAS are also found in other foods, such as meat and dairy products, and they can leach from some types of food packaging, such as pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags, into our food,” Romano said.

Therefore, keeping PFAS from entering the environment is critical due to their persistence there and in our bodies.

Romano suggested that the EPA’s new PFAS guidelines for drinking water are likely to bring the hazards of PFAS more attention than they have previously received.

Romano emphasized that her study should not dissuade people from eating seafood.

The issue with PFAS is more complex than that, especially considering its many other entry routes to the human body.

“The scientific community is working hard to understand more about the overall risk-benefit tradeoff of consuming seafood, Romano said.

“Part of the current challenge for consumers is that some of the traditionally safer seafood choices in terms of mercury content may have higher concentrations of other pollutants, like PFAS. This really underscores the importance of eating a balanced diet that incorporates a wide variety of healthy foods,” Romano explained.

Kirkpatrick noted that fish is “one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet,” and serves as a great source of nutrients including:

  • protein
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • B vitamins
  • vitamin D
  • other vitamins and minerals

“Fish is often found in dietary patterns that have been extensively studied to have the benefits to longevity, heart and brain health, and general health span,” Kirkpatrick added.

Fish occupies a central role in the Mediterranean diet and Nordic diet, for instance.

According to Kirkpatrick, current guidelines call for a minimum of about 2 to 2.5 servings of seafood weekly for children and adults.

People who are pregnant or nursing should eat a minimum of 3 servings per week.

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