Interactive map depicts extent of worldwide wildlife exposure to ‘forever chemicals’

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Scientists have documented the widespread exposure of more than 600 animal species to toxic “forever chemicals,” in a new interactive map released on Tuesday.

As contaminated wildlife crop up in every corner of the planet, humans may be playing a sentinel role in transmitting the adverse effects of these compounds — known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — to other organisms, the researchers argued. 

“PFAS pollution is not just a problem for humans,” David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “It’s a problem for species across the globe.

Andrews is the first author of a new peer-reviewed paper, published in Science of the Total Environment and released alongside the interactive map.

The map provides a significant update from a previous version released by the Environmental Working Group in February — and includes nearly double the number of polluted species. 

To put together the current map, the researchers combed through more than 200 studies that detected more than 120 unique PFAS compounds in more than 600 species, on every continent. 

There are thousands of types of PFAS, synthetic compounds notorious for their ability to persist in the body and in the environment. 

These so-called forever chemicals are linked to a variety of cancers and illnesses and are found in numerous household products, such as nonstick pans, cosmetics and waterproof apparel. 

While the researchers identified PFAS compounds in 625 species — a jump from February’s estimate of 330 species — they stressed that this may be an underestimation. 

The absence of PFAS among species in certain countries, they explained, is not due to a lack of contamination, but to a lack of recent test results. 

“There is seemingly no place on the planet untouched by PFAS contamination,” the researchers noted in the accompanying paper. 

Drawing their conclusions from a variety of other peer-reviewed epidemiological studies, the paper argues that investigations of the effects of PFAS on human health could offer critical insights into possible harms to wildlife health. 

Among the studies cited is a look at the immune response of North Carolina alligators that associated elevated PFAS levels with heightened occurrence of skin lesions.

Another study found that hawksbill sea turtles — critically endangered animals that live in the North Pacific — were vulnerable to the impacts of PFAS exposure even prior to hatching from their eggs. 

“There are still countless locations and species across the globe that are likely contaminated but have not yet been tested,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.  

The interactive map provides a clickable visual into the locations and prevalence of many of these wildlife — including fish, birds, reptiles, frogs and other amphibians, as well as large mammals such as horses and polar bears, and small mammals like cats. 

Some of these animals are already considered to be endangered or threatened, the researchers noted. 

“The wildlife map is not an exhaustive catalog of all animal studies but mostly those published in the past few years,” Andrews said. 

“PFAS are ubiquitous,” he added.

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