Birds Are Living Proof That ‘Forever Chemicals’ Pollute Our Water Supplies

Decades of studies show avian eggs and tissues are chock-full of widely used PFAS. Now officials are finally taking action for public health.

Splotchy and olive-brown, with a slight sheen to its shell, a contaminated Herring Gull egg on Lake Erie’s shores looks the same as any other. But under its delicate surface lies a host of toxins that could disrupt the young bird’s life before it begins.

Created from a byproduct of the Manhattan Project, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were engineered to be indestructible to water, oil, and heat. Today more than 4,000 forms can be found in products ranging from cooking pans and winter coats to burger wrappers and dental floss. For decades, however, these unregulated “forever chemicals” have also infiltrated lakes, streams, and hundreds of urban drinking supplies. Their pervasiveness doesn’t bode well for organisms that rely on these waters.

Fifty years of research has shown high PFAS levels amassed in the environment and food chain may increase the risk of developmental issues and cancers in fish, birds, and mammals—humans included. The compounds also funnel from mother to offspring, threatening infant survival.

That’s been true with aquatic birds, such as Double-crested Cormorants in San Francisco Bay and Little Ringed Plovers in South Korea, which have experienced reduced hatching success. PFAS have also been detected in species as scattered as Northern Cardinals in Hawaii, Snow Buntings in the Arctic, and American Flamingos in the Caribbean—making avian studies useful barometers for broader wildlife and public-health risks. “The effects in birds mirror that in humans,” says Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati, a California State Polytechnic University, Pomona ecologist who’s mapping PFAS in Aves on a global scale.

Map: Courtesy of Bonisoli-Alquati lab

The Great Lakes Herring Gull Monitoring Program, begun in 1974 to measure pesticides and mercury, has helped track the chemicals. Each spring U.S. and Canadian biologists collect eggs at 15 sites, days after they’ve been laid. The samples go to the National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa, where Robert Letcher’s lab assesses them for upward of 300 organic contaminants. PFAS, he says, always are among the most frequent; one year, 97 percent of eggs tested positive. Spurred by these results, Canada set a new limit for a common type of PFAS in drinking water in 2013. “You can only generate guidelines if you have real, empirical information,” Letcher says. “We have that weight of evidence.”

The United States has been slower to respond to the science. The Environmental Protection Agency shared recommended guidelines for capping some of the substances in potable water in 2016, but didn’t attempt to set a legal limit until this spring (a draft plan is now open for public comment). Its proposed numbers, however, are 70 times higher than the safe level suggested by scientists, says Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. What’s more, the document doesn’t broach remediation of highly contaminated sites or cover PFAS replacements now also in use, which are less persistent but may still have health effects.

While awaiting EPA action, New Jersey and Ohio have recently set contaminant limits more on par with research. Other states went to court: In 2018 Minnesota won a $850 million settlement against manufacturer 3M, arguing the company—which had announced a phaseout of some PFAS types 18 years before—knew about the chemicals’ dangers and continued to taint natural resources. Much of the money will go to cleaning water supplies, as well as habitat restoration, says former attorney general Lori Swanson, who led the case. Congress, too, created a task force and is mulling bills that would pressure agencies to put research, education, and money to the cause.

For advocates like Temkin, these steps are decades late. The U.S. government, she says, should be vetting impacts of commercial products before they hit the market—not once they've already done their damage. Some of the laws that dictate manufacturing processes date back to the 1930s and ’70s and have hardly been touched since. “It's a broken system,” Temkin says.

As a result, patents like 3M's fall through the regulatory cracks. “The very ingredients that made PFAS a blockbuster product also made them a destroyer of the environment,” Swanson explains, citing the millions of pages of documents and hundreds of depositions her team gathered to build their lawsuit. The attorney, who now runs her own firm, hopes that other states can use the information uncovered in Minnesota to hold companies and agencies to task. “The EPA needs a robust standard that protects public water and health, along with ecosystems. It can’t coddle the industry,” she says. 

Experts are at least encouraged by the recent flurry of activity from lawmakers. “We’re developing our environmental conscience as a nation on this issue,” says Bonisoli-Alquati. “The time is ripe for taking the scientific evidence and applying it to policy.”

But until those efforts bear fruit, PFAS research will remain piecemeal, as will progress on addressing the chemicals’ toll. Last year, the results of an analysis of Burmese immigrants in Buffalo, New York, echoed those from the Great Lakes Herring Gull project. Sixty-five percent of people surveyed had nine kinds of PFAS in their blood; some had levels six times the national average.

Like the gulls, the community eats Great Lakes fish. “These birds are helping us keep an eye on the contamination,” Letcher says. He has no doubt he’ll be seeing it for years to come.

This story originally ran in the Summer 2019 issue as “Toxic Tailwind. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.