A concrete pier juts hundreds of feet into the Niagara River from the northern tip of Unity Island. It’s isolated, quiet and where Antawyn Parker likes to fish.
He makes dinner with his catch about once a month, Parker told Investigative Post. But unbeknownst to him the fish are contaminated with a toxin recently linked to a slate of disorders and illnesses, including cancer and immune system concerns.
According to a study by the state Department of Health, Western New Yorkers who eat local fish have “substantially elevated” levels of the toxin PFOS in their bodies. Some of the readings were as high as 6.5 times above what’s considered normal.
Parker was shocked.
“Now that I’m aware of what’s going on around I definitely want to get tested,” he said.
Dr. David Andrews, a public health expert at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, was also alarmed by the readings.
“It’s actually quite concerning,” Andrews told Investigative Post. “We know that these compounds are potent at incredibly low concentrations where they are impacting health.”
The chemical’s impacts are only beginning to be identified by researchers, but already include numerous concerning effects, such as increased risk for certain cancers, thyroid disease, and reproductive health problems, including issues with fertility and child development.
“This is a decreased antibody response to vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “Generally people who have been exposed to these chemicals have a harder time fighting infection.”
PFOS are one chemical in a family of thousands found in PFAS, which are typically added to a wide range of consumer products to help them repel water and grease. PFOS are found in textile products, like fabric protectors and carpets, as well as certain fire-fighting foams.
The family has a nickname: “forever chemicals,” because they stick around so long in the environment – and in the human body. People can be exposed by using products that contain them or in the environment. Once they’re thrown out, the materials are buried in landfills or burned by trash incinerators, Reed said. Contaminated liquids can seep from dumps into nearby soil and water. Incineration spreads the chemicals by air.
Warnings about fish consumption come primarily from state-issued advisories. Certain local species in the region contain pollutants, like dioxin, an industrial byproduct related to chlorine. However, there’s no Western New York advisory for PFOS.
Several local fishermen who spoke to Investigative Post were unfamiliar with the chemical, or the state study. Among them was Hector Reyes.
“I never heard of none of this stuff and I fish almost every day,” he said.
The study findings are troubling enough that officials should think about a consumption advisory for PFOS in Western New York, Andrews said.
“That is definitely something that the Department of Health should consider,” he said.
Fishermen unaware of risks
Government efforts to understand the toxicity of PFAS are in their infancy, according to Reed. More might be known if the hazards weren’t “hidden” for decades by companies like 3M and Chemours, a spin-off of Du Pont, she said.
“That was done intentionally by the makers of these chemicals,” she said.
Robet Bilott, an internationally recognized environmental attorney, helped expose the problem. In 2017, he secured a $671 million settlement for more than 3,500 plaintiffs poisoned by PFAS-related contamination in West Virginia. Bilott’s memoir was adapted as the 2019 film, “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.
To sample PFOS levels in Western New York, the state Department of Health tested the blood and urine of 615 subjects who fished primarily in Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Eighteen Mile Creek. It’s part of the state’s Healthy Fishing Communities Program, which tracks chemical and metal exposures in partnership with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The study looked at two groups. One comprised 409 licensed fishermen who ate an average of 16 meals per year with fish caught locally; the other, 206 immigrants from Burma, or Myanmar who consumed an annual average of 39 fish-based meals.
Despite the difference in consumption, the study found both groups “had substantially elevated levels of PFOS.” The anglers’ results were 2.4 times greater than the U.S. average. For the Burmese, the levels were 6.5 times greater.
Andrews, the public health specialist, said the concentrations found in the Burmese immigrant group exceed those found in communities with identified “forever chemical” pollution, like those near military bases where the contaminants are rife.
“The exposure level in these Burmese residents who are consuming the fish are higher than the general exposures in many contaminated communities across the United States,” he said.
Because no state or federal standard has been set for PFOS concentrations in blood or urine, researchers compared local results to PFOS data from the federal Center for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It was an important tool in decreasing lead exposure in recent decades, according to the agency.
Erin Silk, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, declined interview requests from Investigative Post, but responded to questions by email. She said the study’s participants were alerted to their results by 2015. For non-English speakers, interpretation services were coordinated with Jericho Road Community Health Center, where in-person advisory events were also held.
The intervening years should not lessen local concern, Andrews said, noting how resistant the chemical is to breakdown. There’s ongoing exposure, he said.
“The health concern hasn’t gone away and, if anything, our knowledge of the health impacts has only increased over time, really highlighting how much more should be done.”
Immigrant community vulnerable
Steven Sanyu, president of the local nonprofit civic group, Burmese Community Services, said the organization and public officials have helped to educate locals on the hazards of fish consumption, but it’s not enough.
”We need more,” he said.
There’s a significant language barrier, Sanyu said. There are eight different Burmese ethnic groups among the local population, estimated at 8,000 to 15,000 people. According to Sanyu, they speak at least six dialects. But some can’t read, even in their native language, he said.
Many immigrants from Burma have fled long-standing civil instability and violence, including military coups and — in recent years — the ruling party has waged a genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim people.
A behavioral health survey published by the University at Buffalo from 2016 found that 72 percent of the local Burmese population spent at least one year in a refugee camp prior to arriving in the Western New York. Some spent as long as 20 years in camps, it said.
“Some people, they’ve never been to school. They cannot read. Only they can speak,” Sanyu said.
Longtime local fishermen Lorne Sero Jr., who frequents Broderick Park, told Investigative Post he often sees immigrants and refugees purchasing fish from local anglers on Unity Island, which is bordered Black Rock Canal and Niagara River.
During one recent sale, a woman bought fish from Sero and several others, he said. She filled a large bag as she went.
“One of them contractor bags,” he said.
To combat it, Silk said the state Department of Health is planning more outreach efforts specific to the Burmese communities in Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo.
A study is scheduled for 2024 that aims to develop “statewide and regional baseline information” for blood and urine concentrations of PFAS-related chemicals.
That research is urgently needed, according to Reed.
What’s known about PFAS-related chemicals is “only the tip of the iceberg,” Reed said. Regulation will decrease future exposures, but studying the chemicals is what will help people understand the potential impacts of what is already inside them.
“It’s really something that needs to be prioritized by local, state, and federal governments,” Reed said.