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Grad student finds PFAS in seabirds from Narragansett Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Cape Fear

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Evidence continues to accumulate about human and wildlife exposure to chemical compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively referred to as PFAS, and their deleterious effects on the environment. The latest study, by a University of Rhode Island graduate student, found high levels of the compounds in seabirds from offshore Massachusetts and coastal Rhode Island and North Carolina.

URI graduate student Anna Robuck dissects a seabird as part of her PFAS research. Credit: Anna Robuck



Chief among the findings was the discovery that one type of PFAS, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or PFOS, which has not been produced since the early 2000s, is the most dominant PFAS compound in the birds from all three sites, further illustrating how these chemicals do not breakdown in the environment and can remain in animal tissues for many years.

“Wildlife is being inundated with PFAS,” said Anna Robuck, a doctoral student at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, who has been studying PFAS with Professor Rainer Lohmann since 2016. “We don’t really understand what that means for wildlife health overall, since scientists are just catching up with what PFAS means for human health. What we do know is that we’re seeing significant concentrations that laboratory studies tell us are concerning.”

Her research was published this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The concentrations of PFAS Robuck found in seabird livers are comparable to levels found in other bird studies that suggested that the compounds may be causing negative reproductive health outcomes.

“This speaks to the incredible persistence of these compounds,” she said. “Once in the environment, it’s there in perpetuity for it to be accumulated by wildlife. And even though we no longer produce PFOS, we still produce a series of related compounds that, once in the environment, readily transform into PFOS.”

Robuck, a native of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, measured the levels of PFAS in the livers of herring gulls from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, great shearwaters in the offshore waters of Massachusetts Bay, and royal and sandwich terns from Cape Fear, North Carolina. All of the birds were juveniles found dead near their breeding or feeding grounds. The three sites were chosen to represent birds from an urban area where PFAS exposure is common (Narragansett Bay), an offshore area of birds that seldom approach land (Massachusetts Bay), and an area downstream of a major PFAS producer (Cape Fear).

“We studied their livers because there is a specific protein in the liver that PFAS love to bind to,”…

Science X staff

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