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An industrial chemical finds its way into Great Lakes trout

Feb 2, 2016

  

An industrial chemical is showing up in trout from the Great Lakes. It’s called perfluoro-1-butane sulfonamide, or FBSA.

Researchers traced this chemical back to several products on the market. Those include detergents and surfactants first used in 2003. Surfactants are materials made to stainproof and waterproof products.

This research was published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

Robert Letcher is one of the study's authors. He’s a senior research scientist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, a department of the Canadian government.

Letcher says his team tested trout samples from eight different sites in Lakes Erie, Huron and Ontario. They also tested fish from three other lakes in Canada.

Almost all of the fish his team tested had detectable levels of the FBSA chemical in their bodies. Thirty-two of the 33 samples tested came back showing the chemical. To be clear, we’re talking low levels here — parts per billion low.

Letcher says it was a surprise to find the chemical in fish.

“We were the first ever to find this compound in the environment — like to demonstrate its presence,” he says. “It’s never been reported before.”

The fish sampling sites.
Credit "A New Fluorinated Surfactant Contaminant in Biota: Perfluorobutane Sulfonamide in Several Fish Species"/Environmental Science and Technology

The researchers don’t know exactly what’s happening here. It could be that other chemicals are breaking down into FBSA in the environment. But the chemical might also be coming straight from industrial products.

Letcher says some companies started using FBSA to replace a different chemical, called FOSA, or perfluorooctane sulfonamide. Studies showed that chemical was breaking down, and part of it was building up in the food web.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency put together an industry-wide agreement to phase that chemical out. So industries replaced it with chemicals like FBSA. And that’s the chemical Letcher and his team are now finding in fish.

He says scientists often have to play catch up to figure out if there are problems with new chemicals brought onto the market.

“When a body of evidence — scientific evidence — builds up great enough to basically render a negative decision against a compound, and it gets regulated or what have you, companies phase these compounds out and they look for alternatives which to use that are safer, but also to serve their purpose,” Letcher says.

Unknown effects

He says research into FBSA is so new, they just don’t know much about what this might mean for fish or for people who eat the fish.

“It’s completely impossible to tell, because nobody’s done anything regarding toxicology,” Letcher says. “That’s usually the way things go. Somebody like us, we find a new chemical, and in this case in fish. And obviously a lot of aquatic fish toxicologists out there are going, ‘Well, we should really try to understand what this chemical could be doing to the fish.’”

Letcher says one of the next steps is to look at other species in the food web. That way his team can figure out if this chemical is building up in other creatures.

The American Chemistry Council said the FBSA chemical is not made by any of its member companies, and was therefore unwilling to comment.

*Clarification: An earlier version of this post stated that trout were sampled throughout the Great Lakes, but researchers sampled trout in Lakes Huron, Ontario and Erie.