Fish still contaminated with phased-out Scotchgard chemical

Reprinted from Environmental Health News under a Creative Commons License

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Smallmouth bass are one of many freshwater fish species contaminated with PFOS in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes.

By Brian Bienkowski

A persistent chemical formerly used in Scotchgard still contaminates most fish in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes despite a phase-out a dozen years ago, a new federal study shows.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in all of the 157 fish sampled from nearshore waters in the five Great Lakes and in 73 percent from 162 rivers.

The study, the largest of its kind in freshwater fish, suggests that eating bass, trout, walleye and catfish could be a major source of exposure for anglers and their families. The chemical remains widespread in wildlife, people and water around the world.

“This just shows that PFOS still dominates. Even though production stopped more than a decade ago, it’s still the main perfluorinated acid in the environment,” said Craig Butt, a Duke University chemist who was not involved in the study.

PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds are used in oil and water resistant coatings for pots and pans, clothes, paper, carpet and flame retardant foams.

The 3M Company, the major manufacturer of PFOS, voluntarily stopped its production in 2002 after scientists discovered that it was building up in water, wildlife and people.

“This just shows that PFOS still dominates.” –Craig Butt, Duke UniversityNevertheless, “every single human being we test has levels of PFOS in them,” Butt said. The compound “doesn’t break down in light, it doesn’t oxidize. Once it’s in the environment it’s not going anywhere.”

Most health studies have focused on communities with drinking water contaminated by PFOS. But people are exposed in many ways, said Sarah Knox, a professor and epidemiologist at West Virginia University. “Routes of exposure are multiple – things like linings of food containers, stain resistance sprays, fire-proofing and non-stick cookware,” she said.

The EPA estimates that “contamination in food may account for more than 90 percent of human exposure to PFOS and PFOA” and that fish may be a major source of PFOS.

“It should be noted that the higher the fish is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds,” Knox said.

In the rivers 25 fish species were tested, with smallmouth and largemouth bass and channel catfish the most prevalent. In the Great Lakes, 18 species were tested, mostly lake trout, smallmouth bass and walleye. The study did not name the rivers but the sites were mostly east of the Mississippi River.

3M Company has switched from PFOS and PFOA to other perfluorinated compounds in its products.

3M Company has switched from PFOS and PFOA to other perfluorinated compounds in its products.

“It should be noted that the higher the fish in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds.” –Sarah Knox, West Virginia UniversityPFOS, a suspected endocrine disruptor, has been linked to low birth weights, reduced immune system function in children and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

In addition, a study of about 47,000 people in West Virginia whose drinking water was contaminated by a DuPont plant linked PFOS to changes in liver function, early menopause in women and high cholesterol. Animal studies with rats and mice also have shown PFOS causes developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

PFOA, another perfluorinated compound, was found in just 19 of the Great Lakes samples and none of the river samples. It has been linked to heart disease, suppressed immune systems in children and cancers.

Despite repeated requests, EPA officials would not allow the scientists who conducted the study to be available for an interview.

Of 13 compounds measured, PFOS was detected at the highest levels: In urban river fish it was measured at 4.8 to 127 parts per billion, and at 1.9 to 80 parts per billion in Great Lakes fish.

Channel catfish in many U.S. rivers were found contaminated with PFOS.

Channel catfish in many U.S. rivers were found contaminated with PFOS.

The EPA hasn’t established a “safe dose” of PFOS. However, Minnesota health officials recommend eating only one meal of fish per week if PFOS concentrations are 40 to 200 parts per billion, and only one meal per month if 200 to 800 parts per billion. About 11 percent of the fish samples from U.S. rivers and 9 percent of the Great Lakes samples exceeded 40 parts per billion.

Keri Hornbuckle, a professor at the University of Iowa who studies Great Lakes contaminants, said researchers suspect that wastewater treatment plants are an ongoing source of PFCs.

The compounds also travel on ocean and wind currents. “The animals with the highest levels of PFOS we know of are polar bears from the Arctic,” Butt said.

New compounds have emerged after 3M’s phase-out of PFOS and PFOA, which the company eliminated in 2008. 3M has touted perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) as a safe alternative, and the compound was not found in any of the river or Great Lakes samples. 3M did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Michael Murray, a scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, said that the key to addressing emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes is to look upstream now, before it’s too late.

“We don’t want to be dealing with the next round of perfluorinated compounds in five years,” Murray said. “The key is pollution prevention, practices like green chemistry, to reduce the need for these chemicals in the first place.

“Because once they’re here, they don’t go away,” he said.


Follow Brian Bienkowski on Twitter.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at mcone@ehn.org.

Eric Holder: The Reason Robert Rubin Isn’t Behind Bars

Reprinted from The Center for Economic and Policy Research under a Creative Commons License

By Dean Baker

The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.

Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.

In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings.

All three of these actions – knowingly issuing mortgages based on false information, deliberately packaging fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities, and deliberately inflating the ratings for mortgage backed securities – are serious crimes that potentially involve lengthy prison sentences. Holder opted not to pursue criminal cases against the individuals involved.

In the last couple of years Holder did bring civil cases against these banks that led to multibillion settlements. These settlements won big headlines that gave the appearance of being tough on the banks.

If we look at the issue more closely the rationale for these settlements gets pretty shaky. When Bank of America or J.P. Morgan has to pay out several billion dollars in penalties in 2013 or 2014, the people being hit most immediately are current shareholders and to a lesser extent top management. Since stock turns over frequently, the overlap between the group of people who hold these banks’ stock today and the people who benefited from the profits racked up in the bubble years will be limited. This means for the most part the fines are hitting people who did not profit from the wrong doing.

The same story holds for the top executives. Insofar as these are different people from those in charge in the bubble years (this is mostly the case), they can rightly tell their boards that they should not be held responsible for the wrongdoing of their predecessors. As a result, boards are likely to compensate top management if they fail to hit bonus targets due to the fines. This just means more of a hit to current shareholders. So the people who profited from criminal acts get to keep their money, while Holder can boast about nailing people who had nothing to do with the crime.

Had Holder treated this as a normal criminal matter he would have looked to build cases from the bottom up. This means finding specific examples of mortgage agents issuing obviously fraudulent mortgages, cases where these mortgages got bundled into securities at investment banks, and then marked as investment grade by the rating agencies.

The people involved would then be pressed to say whether they are either buffoons or crooks. Most probably would not pass as the former. The next question is why they decided to break the law. When you get people to admit that they were acting on instructions from their bosses, you then ask the bosses whether they want to spend many years in jail or would prefer to explain why they thought it was a good idea to commit fraud. (This is the pattern the Justice Department is pursuing in going after illegal campaign contributions to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.)

We can never know this pattern of prosecution would have nailed big fish like Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein or Citigroup’s Robert Rubin. We do know that Holder never even tried. As a result the Wall Streeters who profited most from illegal acts in the bubble years got to keep their haul. This is the message that bankers will take away going forward. This virtually guarantees ongoing corruption in finance.


AUTHOR_Dean_BakerDean Baker is the author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, Taking Economics Seriously, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy, The United States Since 1980, The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Benefits of Full Employment (with Jared Bernstein). He was the editor of Getting Prices Right: The Debate Over the Consumer Price Index, which was a winner of a Choice Book Award as one of the outstanding academic books of the year. He appears frequently on TV and radio programs, including CNN, CBS News, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio. His blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.

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