Lobster and shrimp

(Photo 60740584 | Eating Shrimp Lobster © Andrey Starostin | Dreamstime.com)

HANOVER, N.H. — New England is known for its love of seafood, and New Hampshire is no exception. From succulent lobster to flaky cod, the ocean’s bounty is a staple on many Granite State tables. However, a new study out of Dartmouth College suggests that this beloved culinary tradition may come with an unseen risk: exposure to a class of persistent, man-made toxins known as PFAS.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of chemicals that have been widely used in consumer products since the 1950s. You might know them best for their role in making non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics, but they’re also found in a host of other items, from food packaging to firefighting foams. While these chemicals have made our lives more convenient in many ways, they’ve also earned a worrisome nickname: “forever chemicals.”

Why “forever”? Because PFAS are incredibly resistant to breaking down in the environment. They can linger for years, even decades, accumulating in soil, water, and living organisms. This persistence is particularly concerning because exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, thyroid problems, and reproductive disorders.

So, how do these troubling compounds find their way into our seafood? Forever chemicals can enter waterways through various routes, such as industrial discharges, landfill runoff, and the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Once in the water, they can be taken up by fish and other marine life, working their way up the food chain and eventually landing on our dinner plates.

To get a clearer picture of this potential risk, the Dartmouth researchers conducted a two-pronged study, published in the journal Exposure and Health. First, they analyzed fresh seafood samples purchased from a coastal New Hampshire market, testing for 26 different PFAS compounds. They focused on some of the most commonly consumed species in the region: cod, haddock, lobster, salmon, scallops, shrimp, and tuna. The results were eye-opening. Several PFAS compounds were detected in the seafood samples, with the highest levels found in shrimp and lobster. In some cases, the concentrations were high enough to potentially pose a health risk, especially for people who eat a lot of these species.

lobster on icy tray
Once in the water, forever chemicals can be taken up by fish and other marine life, working their way up the food chain and eventually landing on our dinner plates. (Photo by Louis Hansel from Unsplash)

So, just how much seafood are New Hampshirites eating? To answer that question, the researchers surveyed nearly 1,800 state residents about their consumption habits. The findings confirm what many already know: New Englanders love their seafood.

According to the survey, a whopping 95 percent of New Hampshire adults reported eating seafood in the past year, with the vast majority having consumed fish or shellfish within the previous month. Men in the state eat slightly more than an ounce of seafood per day on average, while women consume just under an ounce. Both figures are higher than the regional and national averages. Even New Hampshire’s youngest residents are enjoying the fruits of the sea. Children between two and 11 years-old in the state eat about a fifth of an ounce of seafood daily, putting them at the top end of the range for kids nationwide.

However, not all Granite Staters are diving into seafood equally. The survey found some intriguing patterns based on geography and income. Coastal residents and those living near the Massachusetts border were more likely to have eaten seafood in the week before the survey. Interestingly, people with household incomes below $45,000 reported eating seafood more frequently than their higher-earning neighbors.

What does all this mean for the health of New Hampshire’s seafood lovers? The researchers stress that their findings don’t suggest people need to swear off fish and shellfish altogether. Seafood is still an excellent source of lean protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But the study does highlight the importance of developing guidelines to help consumers make informed choices.

“Our recommendation isn’t to not eat seafood,” says Megan Romano, the study’s corresponding author and an associate professor of epidemiology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. “But it also is a potentially underestimated source of PFAS exposure in humans.”

Currently, there are no federal guidelines for safe levels of PFAS in seafood, unlike other contaminants such as mercury. Establishing such benchmarks could be especially important for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and young children, who may be more sensitive to the effects of these chemicals.

“People who eat a balanced diet with more typical, moderate amounts of seafood should be able to enjoy the health benefits of seafood without excessive risk of PFAS exposure,” notes Kathryn Crawford, the study’s first author and an environmental studies professor at Middlebury College.

In the meantime, the researchers say their findings underscore the need for further investigation into PFAS pollution and how these forever chemicals are entering the marine food web, as well as more comprehensive testing of seafood species. They also hope their work will inform the development of public health policies to protect consumers, especially in regions like New England, where seafood is a dietary staple.

Article reviewed by StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink.

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