About two years after issuing its first-ever fish consumption advisory associated with PFAS contamination, Maryland is issuing a slew of new warnings.
The state’s first advisory in 2021 was limited to the Piscataway Creek in Prince George’s County, which runs near Joint Base Andrews and empties into the Potomac River near Fort Washington.
But this round is far more comprehensive, following years of testing of different fish species for PFAS — so-called “forever chemicals” known to cause cancer and other health problems — at locations frequented by recreational anglers in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
The dozens of new advisories to be released Friday by the Maryland Department of the Environment are spread across Maryland waterways, and cover a variety of fish species. The largest number of new advisories were assigned to large and smallmouth bass, sunfish including bluegill, and white perch, according to a document provided to the Baltimore Sun.
Most of the advisories don’t recommend not eating those fish, but rather limiting how many are consumed.
Blue crabs and oysters in Maryland waters were tested for PFAS as well, but the results indicated no need for meal limits, according to the MDE, which conducts the monitoring and issues the advisories.
Only a few fish species in the Piscataway should be avoided altogether by the general population because of PFAS contamination, according to MDE. The data also showed children should avoid consuming Northern snakeheads caught in the Mattawoman Creek, large and smallmouth bass in the Conococheague Creek and sunfish in the Monocacy River.
For the remainder of the advisories, MDE recommended a maximum number of servings a person should have per month, given the potential for negative health impacts. Those span from one serving every other month to eight in a month.
Maryland has long issued advisories for other contaminants that can accumulate in fish tissue and potentially cause health impacts for humans that consume them, such as pesticides. But the state is just beginning to issue warnings associated with PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS is an expansive group containing thousands of man-made chemicals that have been used to create a number of products, from nonstick pans to waterproof raincoats. Though their resistance to water and heat makes the chemicals useful, it also means that once they get into the environment they don’t readily degrade, which earned them the forever chemical nickname.
Most Americans have been exposed to some amount of PFAS through drinking water, food items and consumer products, and have some amount of the persistent chemicals in their bloodstreams. Heavy exposure to several of the chemicals have been linked to harmful health effects, such as an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, high cholesterol and decreased immune response.
Contamination has been particularly evident at military bases across the nation, where firefighting foams containing PFAS were used during testing and training efforts. In Maryland, the list includes Aberdeen Proving Ground, Joint Base Andrews and Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Lexington Park.
All of the fish advisories issued by Maryland so far have come as a result of observed contamination from PFOS, historically one of the most widely used PFAS chemicals, which has been replaced by other PFAS in recent years amid evidence of its health effects.
Advisories for PFOS now make up about 16% of the total number of MDE’s fish consumption advisories. The rest are for mercury, PCBs or pesticides.
Monitoring for PFAS contamination now will be part of MDE’s routine fish monitoring, and the advisories will be updated on an annual basis, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department.
Throughout its monitoring efforts, MDE tested for 18-24 different PFAS chemicals in fish tissue, said Amy Laliberte, a natural resource planner with the department, during a public meeting previewing the new advisories Wednesday. PFOS was identified at greater concentrations and a higher frequency than others.
Based on the sampling results, Maryland officials used federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tabulate how much of any one fish would be safe for consumption, Apperson said.
It’s estimated that if a person ate more than the recommended amount of a given fish every month for 30 years, they would face a 1-in-10,000 risk of negative health outcome, according to MDE.
During a public meeting Wednesday about the new fish advisories, some attendees expressed worry that Maryland’s use of the current federal standards may mean its advisories don’t go far enough.
For instance, with drinking water limits on PFAS, the standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency have evolved quickly. Initially set at 70 parts per trillion, the agency now has proposed lowering the enforceable limit to 4 parts per trillion for certain PFAS.
The EPA has determined that nearly any concentration of PFOA or PFOS in drinking water poses a potential health risk, but that figure is too low to reliably detect, so the limit was set at 4.
“That’s a drinking water standard and it’s coming from EPA. What it reflects, though, is the recognition in the scientific community — in the health community — that PFAS is tens of thousands more dangerous than they had expected,” said Bob Dreher, legal director at the Potomac Riverkeeper Network during MDE’s public meeting. “I suspect that food consumption standards and the evaluation of risk with those, is going to go through a similar revolution.”
John Backus, program manager at MDE’s field services program, said his team participates in meetings with the EPA and fellow states about how to address the growing body of knowledge on PFAS.
“One of the challenges is that we’re finding that we are right at the detection limits,” Backus said. “Those numbers are so small, that they’re hard to detect. And so, just because you get a non-detect doesn’t mean they’re not there. And so that complicates it even more.”
The state’s effort to sample for PFAS in fish and issue warnings to the public are certainly appreciated, said Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland PIRG who has focused some of her advocacy efforts on PFAS contamination. But because the contamination is so pervasive, it can’t stop there.
“I want to hear from the administration that they are using every tool they have in their toolbox,” she said.
That could include more intensive efforts to track and control the sources of PFAS contamination, and to eventually place new requirements on wastewater treatment plants to treat water for PFAS before it’s dumped into the environment, advocates say.
“You can’t shop your way out of PFAS exposure. You can’t smart-fish your way out of PFAS exposure,” Scarr said. “Marylanders need more.”
There also could be some improvements in how Maryland communicates fish consumption advisories to recreational fishermen, said Theaux Le Gardeur, who serves as the Gunpowder Riverkeeper.
Le Gardeur also operates a fishing shop near the river and is approved to issue hunting and fishing licenses to Marylanders who walk through his doors. And when he hands them a book of fishing regulations, it doesn’t contain the full list of the state’s fish consumption advisories — just a QR code that can be scanned to view the list online.
Just listing the advisories on paper would be a big help, especially for recreational anglers who may not have a smartphone, Le Gardeur said.
“We have the book. We have the real estate to do it,” Le Gardeur said. “We’re missing an opportunity.”