“Forever chemicals” refers to a group of chemical compounds known as “PFAS” or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. These harmful compounds are found in things like Teflon non-stick cookware and other non-stick and waterproof products. They are linked, in humans, with a number of dangerous health outcomes including an increased cancer risk. Most Americans, some studies indicate as high as 97% of Americans, have been exposed to these substances which linger in their systems. In recent years, the widespread contamination of our environment with PFAS has become a serious environmental and public health concern. The scale and severity of PFAS contamination is not fully understood yet.
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A study is underway in Minnesota which seeks to answer some of the unknowns of PFAS contamination by examining the nests of swallows. In Duluth, Minnesota, researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are engaged in a study which involves the monitoring of about 300 man-made nest boxes. The aim of the study is to determine whether and to what extent PFAS are present in nesting swallows and the effect this may have on their reproduction.
According to researchers, swallows are believed to accumulate PFAS through their diets, and perhaps through drinking contaminated water. The insects that they eat often hatch in water, so contaminated water sources are a likely source of PFAS in either case. Swallows are a useful bird to study in order to understand the extent of local habitat contamination thanks to the fact that they often hunt close to where they nest. This means that when contamination is found in the eggs or chicks of a swallow, it can be reasonably determined if local water sources are to blame. This is useful for locating and studying contaminated habitats.
So far, the areas studied have yielded mixed results, with some regions only showing “background” levels of PFAS, and others showing higher contamination levels. Other studies have also been mixed with regards to the effects that these chemicals have on birds. Many contaminated bird populations have been recorded as having lower reproductive success when high levels of PFAS have been recorded. Other studies are unclear or inconclusive.
Whether PFAS will damage the reproductive capacity for the Duluth swallows remains to be seen, but the presence of these chemicals in natural habitats is a warning. PFAS are widespread and have even been found in high concentrations in polar bears, tigers, dolphins, and a myriad of other wildlife. This is a crisis that we cannot avoid and do not understand. As we face the unknowns presented by PFAS in our environments and, in fact, our own bodies, studies like this one become more and more important.
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