Part 5: PFAS: How Do They Impact Ecosystems?

It’s the “Wild West” right now, says Anna Robuck, University of Rhode Island (URI) doctoral candidate and STEEP – Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS – Trainee, describing what’s known or understood about the lasting effects that PFAS have on animals and the ecosystem we share with them.

“Animals can’t be asked with a questionnaire” about their health, says Robuck, so we have to work now to find out as much as we can about the PFAS impact on wildlife and the environment. We know very little currently, and as animals ourselves, we need to assess health risks for our own good.

“Forever Chemicals: PFAS – How Do They Impact Ecosystems,” is the fifth 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.

Already, says Robuck, we are starting to see that invisible, forever chemicals are likely playing a role in disrupting aspects of animal development and reproduction, and are changing hormone and fats functions. Robuck, a student of STEEP lead researcher Rainer Lohmann, a URI chemical oceanographer, has studied PFAS via years of examination of bird anatomy and biology; her findings thus far indicate significant changes in the fats or lipids in the bodies of the birds – bycatch samples – she collects for study.

“I am concerned,” says Robuck, a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar and a 2019 Switzer Fellow. Birds are dependent on fat stores to be able to make long migrations that are part of their life cycle, and increasingly, we are seeing migratory failures. Are PFAS causing this? We don’t know yet, says Robuck, but the trend is reason enough for much more continued study.

There’s another trend as well – “no reproduction zones.” Robuck says that there are places in waterways, often near chemical plants, where fish and other creatures just don’t breed anymore. Again, there isn’t enough science to say that PFAS are the cause, so doing more research is the smart next step.

And what happens to fish, what happens to birds, is important for other species – like us. “It all loops back around for humans,” says Robuck.

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