On Thursday, July 13, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) put out a press release revealing something fishy about the fish caught in the lower Cape Fear River – namely, that they aren’t safe to eat due to the level of contaminants in the water.

Technically, the department is recommending “limits on consumption of certain freshwater fish from the middle and lower Cape Fear River based on concerns about exposure to perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) found in fish sampled from that area.”

PFOS – often known as “forever chemicals” – is part of a group of chemicals called “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAS).

The “forever” part of the name comes from the fact that they don’t break down in the environment.

The state’s recommendation is based on new data from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

NCDHHS points out that eating fish is generally a healthy way to get high-quality lean protein as well as some vitamins and minerals. However, they also state that, at the current time, those benefits have to be weighed against the dangers from fish that have absorbed toxins from the polluted waters of the Cape Fear River.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality and NC Wildlife Resources Commission collected and tested the types of fish that are most frequently caught and consumed from the river.

PFAS were found in all species tested, and the levels of PFOS were higher in Bluegill, Flathead Catfish, Largemouth Bass, Striped Bass and Redear. Levels were lower but still concerning in American Shad, Blue Catfish and Channel Catfish.

The recommendation is to eat no more than seven meals a year that include any  American Shad, Blue Catfish or Channel Catfish.

As for Bluegill, Flathead Catfish, Largemouth Bass and Striped Bass, the recommendation is that, after you have one meal of any of these fish, wait for a solid year before dipping into this food group again.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers and children need to be even more cautious, state health officials say.

The public warning from NC DHHS goes on to say that these chemicals are an emerging public health concern with multiple potential sources of exposure, including contaminated drinking water and food, indoor dust, some consumer products and workplaces.

Studies have linked PFAS to several health problems, particularly after long-term exposure. These include “negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in children; reduced chances of getting pregnant; impaired thyroid function; increased cholesterol levels; decreased immune system response; and increased risk of certain types of cancer, including testicular and kidney cancer.”

Since PFAS are present at low levels in many foods – as well as in the environment – you probably can’t prevent exposure completely. However, you can take steps to reduce your risk.  You can more information here: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/resources/pfas-faqs.html.