PFAS: The ‘Forever Chemical’ found in oysters, city water

When FIU Institute of Environment scientists sampled 156 oysters from Biscayne Bay, Marco Island and Tampa Bay, they detected contaminants—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) and phthalate esters (PAEs)—in every single one. These contaminants pose serious health risks to people and wildlife, and the oysters prove they are in the water and have crept into the food chain. The findings were recently published in Science of the Total Environment.

PAEs are widely used in consumer products, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, personal care products, food packing, detergents, children’s toys and more. Exposure can happen from ingestion, inhalation, and through contact with dirt or soil, and studies have found association between PAE exposure and diabetes, obesity, allergies and asthma, as well as impacts to reproductive health, immune function and more.

“I wanted to look into what we’re eating and if it might be contaminating us,” said Leila Lemos, the study’s lead author and an FIU distinguished postdoctoral scholar. “These findings are definitely a red flag, especially for areas like Biscayne Bay.”

As filter-feeders, oysters are among the best sentinels and can reveal a lot about the overall health of an ecosystem, including levels of contamination.

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Biscayne Bay oysters had the highest concentrations of contaminants compared to the other study sites. Lemos says this was somewhat surprising since they were among the smallest oysters sampled. The more time an oyster has to grow, the more time it also has to accumulate toxic chemicals. Tampa Bay oysters were among the largest in the study, but they didn’t have nearly the amount of PFAS or PAEs as the tinier Biscayne Bay oysters. This means Biscayne Bay could be so contaminated that the oysters are bombarded with high enough concentrations that they accumulate contaminants faster, Lemos said.

The contaminants are likely interfering with the oysters’ growth, she said, making their small size another clue. In fact, there was a strong correlation between the amount of PFAS in the water and an oyster’s shell thickness and weight. The oysters with the highest concentrations of contaminants had the thinnest shells. The number of contaminants in the area could impair their development—which raises concerns for how chemical contaminants could threaten oyster farming in other parts of the country.

Florida oysters found to have toxic 'forever chemicals'
L-R: Biscayne Bay oyster compared to the oysters sampled from Tampa Bay. Credit: FIU

“It’s important to also remember that there’s so many other exposure paths for both PFAS and PAEs compounds, like drinking water,” Lemos said.

In fact, a previous FIU study, led by FIU chemistry Assistant Professor Natalia Quinete, found around 30 different PFAS in Miami, Broward and Palm Beach tap water, as well as in Biscayne Bay and nearby tributary canals.

PFAS include thousands of man-made chemicals, primarily used in industrial and consumer products. They are found in almost everything including fast food packaging, non-stick cookware, waterproof makeup, clothing, adhesives, firefighting foams and more. PFAS are problematic because they accumulate over time in the water, air, soil—and have even been found in human blood. These chemicals are known to impact reproduction, human development and immune system functioning, and interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines, as well as cause liver and kidney damage.

“The biggest dream is that the government can see these results and create new ways to clean our water and protect our environment,” Lemos said.

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In June 2022, the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) warned that PFAS are more dangerous than previously thought, even at undetectable levels. To date, PFAS have not been widely studied in Florida. New data will help inform possible solutions and new regulations to start to remove them from the environment

PFAS Detected in Titusville Water

Since 2019, Titusville utility officials have either reported no PFAS in the city’s drinking water or have said detections were at levels considered by regulators to be safe.

Among the water samples collected for the Guardian, some came from the home of a Titusville resident who suffers thyroid problems, a condition linked to PFAS exposure. The resident, who declined to be named, can’t afford a water filtration system, a situation that underscores the fact that many low-income people can be at more risk than people with higher incomes.

“They used [the EPA 537] results as cover,” Stel Bailey told the Guardian, who has suffered from PFAS-linked ailments such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is the Executive Director for the nonprofit organization Fight for Zero. “We need better testing technology so we know where to focus.”

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Independent water testing done by Fight for Zero show forever chemicals known as PFAS, detected in three of five public drinking water fountains in Brevard County.

​The latest sampling that tests 45 PFAS compounds shows that Sandpoint Park in Titusville, Howard E. Futch Memorial Park in Melbourne, and Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay had detectable levels of PFAS.

One of the positive samples is from a fountain situated between a children’s playground and a splash pad in Sandpoint Park.

According to Fight for Zero, testing showed PFOS was detected at 7.4 parts per trillion and PFHxS at 2.8 parts per trillion

In November 2019, Fight for Zero made a record request to the City of Titusville for the results of their most recent PFOA and PFOS water quality testing. Fight for Zero says that instead of making the records readily available, the city estimated $32.99 an hour for a minimum of two hours. The organization says they spent two months corresponding with the city but never received records.

Fight for Zero uploaded a video from a meeting the city had for a PFAS special presentation, where it was stated that PFAS was not present in the Titusville drinking water.

Fight For Zero is now criticizing the city for not releasing the results of its tests to the public.

“Any municipality that has performed testing should have publicized their drinking water results of these harmful contaminants,” said, Stel Bailey, Executive Director for Fight for Zero, and Environmental Health Advocate.

PFAS monitoring falls under the EPA Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR), which is followed by the City of Titusville per the City’s Florida DEP public drinking water permit. This Rule last required PFAS testing of the Titusville water system in 2014.

The City says the next PFAS sampling is scheduled for 2024.

The City says that in October of 2014, they sampled and tested for six PFAS compounds from our water treatment plant and from a second sample of water supplied to Titusville by the Cocoa public water system. These two samples represent all of the water in our system. The tests results were “Non-Detected” for all PFAS compounds.  

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