Part 3: PFAS: Where are They in the Environment?

The birds all tell the same story — PFAS are a prevalent part of the food web. “They are saturated with them,” says Anna Robuck, a University of Rhode Island (URI) doctoral student, as she discusses her three-pronged research project. “In every tissue, I have found these chemicals.”

That’s important, indicates Robuck, because humans can learn a lot about health risks by looking to other animals, like birds. They’re “a good proxy for human exposure,” says Robuck, a trainee on STEEP — Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS — to understand, analyze, and address just how harmful PFAS are to people and the environment.”

Forever Chemicals: PFAS – Where Are They in the Environment?” is the third of an eight-part STEEP video shorts series, “Silent Chemicals, Loud Science,” that explores problems posed by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), explains how STEEP science is shedding light on the issues, and offers practical and positive steps for making our daily lives safer.

In this part, Robuck, a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar and a 2019 Switzer Fellow, describes her research effort that documents a decade-plus of detailed data, including which of the 4700 PFAS birds ingest, where the “forever chemicals” collect in their bodies, and how the substances move through the food web. Her specimens are bycatch, accidental deaths, and she gauges PFAS levels in their bodies, organs and tissues. Both PFAS and plastics register high.

It’s a “canary in a coal mine” situation, indicates Robuck, whose project is advised by URI oceanographer and STEEP lead researcher Rainer Lohmann. Many of the birds she sampled, she says, are species that generally spend their lives far, far out to sea — and yet their bodies still tell the story of heavy chemical consumption.

And much more needs to be done, says Robuck, from government regulating more members of the PFAS chemical family, to industry being more transparent in PFAS dialogue. We need, essentially, to learn from the birds. “To think that these oceanic creatures are just so full of our chemicals,” she says. “It’s disheartening, but it’s motivating.”

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