Across the country, cities are transforming asphalt schoolyards into spongy, shady community centers.
People who eat just one U.S. freshwater fish a year are likely to show a significant increase of a cancer-causing chemical in their bloodstream, new research warns.
An analysis of U.S. government data derived from more than 500 fish samples revealed that the majority of fish living in streams, rivers and lakes across the country are contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at levels almost 300 times higher than found in fish from other sources, including ocean and farmed fish, according to the paper published recently in the journal Environmental Research.
Importantly, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), a type of PFAS known to be particularly harmful, was the largest contributor to total PFAS levels found in freshwater fish samples, averaging 74% of the total, according to the study.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers PFOS specifically to be a hazardous substance that “may present a substantial danger to human health” due to its links to cancer and effects on reproductive, developmental, and cardiovascular health, and warns that the chemical “may present a substantial danger to human health.” Other PFAS have also been linked to cancer, immune deficiencies, thyroid disease, and other health problems.
The research found that eating one serving of fish at the median PFOS contamination level was equivalent to consuming one month’s worth of drinking water contaminated at 2,400 times the recommended health advisory limit set by the EPA. The study determined that “even occasional consumption” of wild, freshwater fish would likely be a significant source of exposure.
Freshwater fish represent an important U.S. food source, especially for people living on a low income. About 660,000 people in the U.S. eat fish they catch themselves three or more times per week.
“Consuming a single freshwater fish could measurably increase PFAS levels in your body,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and one of the authors of the paper. “These fish are incredibly contaminated.”
Many studies have shown that PFAS chemicals are pervasive in the environment and the new analysis underscores the growing understanding that humans and animals have little avenue for escaping contamination. The research paper found that fish from all 48 continental U.S. states showed PFAS contamination, and only one of the samples did not contain any detectable PFAS.
The study also found higher levels of PFAS among fish from the Great Lakes as compared to water bodies elsewhere, indicating that the Great Lakes are particularly vulnerable to contamination. According to Andrews, this could be because the water in the Great Lakes empties into the ocean much more slowly than other water bodies, aiding the accumulation of PFAS.
Heidi Pickard, a PhD candidate at Harvard University who studies PFAS in aquatic ecosystems and was not involved in the new study, said the results are likely an underestimate of the actual contamination present in fish, given the lack of ability to test for all of the thousands of PFAS chemicals and PFAS precursors — chemicals that break down to form PFAS once they enter the environment.
“We’re only starting to be able to measure and quantify [other PFAS compounds],” she said.
About 660,000 people in the U.S. eat fish they catch themselves three or more times per week.
Credit: Ohio Sea Grant
PFAS are also often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and bioaccumulate, persisting in the bodies of humans and animals. There are more than 4,000 man-made PFAS compounds used by a variety of industries for such things as electronics manufacturing, oil recovery, paints, fire-fighting foams, cleaning products and non-stick cookware.
According to one nationwide study, 97% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, and the chemical is a ubiquitous pollutant in water and soil across the country.
The Biden Administration is implementing a series of steps to try to restrict PFAS from contaminating water, air, land, and food as well as to clean up PFAS pollution and speed up research on other PFAS issues.
The findings are “very concerning” to communities that frequently consume fish from local waterways, said Andrews. The general U.S. population varies greatly in their frequency of fish consumption; anglers, individuals living near water bodies, and immigrant communities coming from cultures with high fish consumption are usually considered the highest consumers.
These people are at higher risk of PFAS contamination; for example, a 2017 study found that higher consumption of fish and shellfish was associated with elevated levels of some PFAS. A 2022 study of Burmese immigrant anglers in New York State found elevated levels of PFOS in the anglers compared to the general population. Some people, said Pickard, rely on freshwater fish for subsistence and may not be able to afford substituting store-bought fish for locally caught fish.
Catching and eating fish is also a sovereign right for Indigenous tribal nations that “must be honored and respected,” according to the paper’s authors.
Freshwater fish represent an important U.S. food source, especially for people living on a low income.
Credit: G Witteveen/flickr
While the EPA recognizes that eating U.S. freshwater fish exposes fishers to PFOS, there are currently no federal fish consumption regulations to protect fishers from these or other PFAS chemicals. Only 14 of 50 states have implemented PFAS-specific fish consumption advisories, which does not reflect the full extent of the contamination problem, according to the research paper.
For example, many states in the Great Lakes region use guidelines set by the Great Lakes Consortium for Fish Consumption Advisories to determine regulations. Those guidelines are based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 drinking water standards.
In 2022, the EPA substantially lowered the drinking water standards — by about three orders of magnitude — with new interim guidelines. If fish advisories across the country were updated to reflect the EPA’s interim guidelines, nearly all fish from rivers, lakes and streams could be considered unsafe, according to the research paper.
Sean Strom, an environmental toxicologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said a lack of funding and scientific capacity among state agencies is likely hindering the creation of new consumption advisories. States that have been monitoring PFAS for longer are more able to enact public health measures in response to changing science, according to Strom.
There is growing evidence that PFAS are affecting other wildlife across the country. The results for freshwater fish, said Andrews, is “just scratching the surface” of the likely contamination by industrial chemicals happening in ecosystems worldwide.
Pickard agreed and said more research is needed to show how PFAS are impacting the lives and health of wildlife.
“We have a significant challenge in being able to assess ecological risk for all these PFAS and what that’s going to mean for species,” she said. “What are the biological effects going to be for them?”
Cleaning up the country’s water bodies is unlikely, according to Ranier Lohmann, a professor of marine chemistry who studies PFAS at the University of Rhode Island.
“There’s not an easy solution to widespread, low-level contamination,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was produced in collaboration with The New Lede.
LOS ANGELES — “You’d never know it by looking at it,” said Don Martin as he faced a tall green wall decorated with a row of bushes. “A danger that’s hidden from view.”
Beyond the wall is the Murphy Site, an active oil drilling project operated by E&B Natural Resources that uses chemicals residents believe are contributing to sinister health problems. For 12 years, Martin has lived next door alongside dozens of families in a yellow low-income housing complex with a basketball court and playground.
Located in the West Adams neighborhood of south Los Angeles, the drill site is surrounded by a senior’s home and a medical clinic for AIDS patients. Three schools stand a block away.
The site is wide open, allowing emissions to waft into the air. Martin’s apartment is about 200 feet from the wall. A sign on the gate reads: “Warning: this area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
His wife was diagnosed with brain cancer and his granddaughter had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I think it’s all related to this sign,” he told EHN.
His granddaughter was eight when she had an operation to remove a tumor in her chest and endured chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, she felt nauseous and she was too exhausted to play with friends. Martin told her the oil site was to blame, and she asked him why they didn’t move. “This is low income, we got nowhere to go,” he said he told her.
She is now in remission, but his wife — his highschool sweetheart and spouse of 50 years — didn’t survive. “I sat there and held her hand and watched her die. That’s something I got to deal with the rest of my life.”
Like Martin and his neighbors, there are 40,000 oil fields globally with six million people living and working nearby, according to a 2019 study that found oil and gas development is associated with cancer, liver damage, immunodeficiency and neurological symptoms. Oil and gas development emits benzene and formaldehyde, both carcinogens. The drilling also emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that increases global heating.
Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the U.S. and about 1,000 active oil and gas wells are sprinkled across the city, next to hiking trails, homes and schools. In Los Angeles County, half a million people live within 1,320 feet of more than 5,000 oil and gas wells, according to a 2014 report; and Latinx, African American and Asian American residents are more likely than white residents to live near oil and gas wells. Statewide, people of color made up 92% of the 1.8 million people living within a mile of an oil and gas site, the same report found.
Yet California is one of the few oil-and-gas-producing states without minimum distance requirements between homes and fossil fuel sites, according to a 2020 analysis. Maryland has the largest distance requirements, at 1,000 feet. Pennsylvania requires 500-foot setbacks from unconventional oil and gas wells. Arkansas has the smallest setbacks, at 100 feet. Other states, like Washington and New York, have banned fracking entirely.
Now, after more than a century of fossil fuel production in California, the tide is turning.
On Dec. 2, the Los Angeles city council passed an ordinance to phase out oil and gas drilling. In September, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors passed a similar ordinance to phase out drilling in unincorporated areas. In September, governor Gavin Newsom signed a law, SB-1137, that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, banning new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of homes and schools — the largest setback requirement of any state. The new laws recognize that fossil fuel extraction contributes to climate change while also harming residents who are primarily Black, Indigenous and people of color. The Biden administration has also promised funding to clean up drill sites.
The California Independent Petroleum Association is fighting the state law by gathering signatures for a petition to “Stop the Energy Shutdown.” In fact, the petition asks for a referendum on SB-1137, which could slow or stop the law.
Martin is skeptical that the new laws will have an immediate impact. While the city will no longer issue new drilling permits, some companies will have 20 years to wind down their activities.
“We’ll be long dead before they phase those sites out,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, stop it now.”
The Murphy Drill site is located just yards away from the St. Andrews Gardens apartment complex in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. Don Martin has been a resident of the apartments for the past 10 years.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Kdyn Childress, 6, rides her bicycle past the St. Andrews Gardens apartments in South L.A. The Murphy oil drill site, which operates active oil and gas wells, lies just a few hundred feet away from apartments.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
The Murphy oil drill site in South L.A. contains 22 active oil and gas wells and 7 injection wells.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
In the 1890s, oil drills began springing up in southern California, and by 1930, Los Angeles was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s oil, according to STAND-LA, an environmental justice coalition of community groups. Conventional oil has dwindled, but new techniques like fracking and acidization have enabled continued extraction.
The growth of oil and gas development has placed health hazards near millions of people: an estimated 17 million U.S. residents live within one mile of an active oil or gas well, according to a 2017 analysis.
In 2003, Jennifer Blue moved into a West Adams home two blocks from the Jefferson Site, operated by mining and energy firm Freeport McMoRan (in 2016 the company’s California assets were acquired by Sentinel Peak Resources) Like the Murphy Site, it was hidden behind a wall and shrubs, so she had no clue she lived near an active oil site. After a year, in 2004, she moved into the house where she now lives, located between the two drilling sites — 3,400 feet from the Murphy Site and 2,300 feet from the Jefferson Site.
Around 2012, her church began to fight the Jefferson Site. That’s when she learned that the chemicals in use behind the walls were linked to miscarriages. By then, she had experienced two miscarriages — one in 2008 and another in 2012. Her friends who lived nearby also suffered miscarriages.
“I remember just feeling a pit in my stomach and feeling simultaneously really sad and really angry,” she told EHN.
Severalstudies have linked oil and gas development to increased risk of birth defects, infertility and miscarriages. A 2016 review of the literature found moderate evidence for increased risk of miscarriage, prostate cancer, birth defects and decreased semen quality from exposure to oil and gas extraction.
Reproductive issues are not the only health effects associated with oil and gas production. Studies in Pennsylvania and Colorado have linked oil and gas extraction to higher risk of leukemia in young people.
Jennifer Blue at her home in South Los Angeles, California. Her active voice in the community has inspired others to share their experiences of developing health issues due to living close to oil wells.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Another study, co-authored by Jill Johnston, associate professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, found that residents living less than 656 feet from and downwind of oil and gas development in Los Angeles’ Las Cienegas oil field had lower lung function. “We saw similar impacts to that of living with a smoker,” Johnston told EHN.
Another paper she co-authored found high methane concentrations near three oil and gas facilities and a natural gas pipeline in south Los Angeles. High levels of methane exposure can also cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
Johnston also recently published a study that examined the toenails of more than 200 Black, Latinx and Asian people living within one kilometer of the Las Cienegas oil field. She explained that when people are exposed to toxic chemicals, they can end up in different places in the body. “Toxic metals can deposit in toenails,” she said.
The results showed elevated levels of nickel, the most abundant trace metal in oil; and manganese, which is also linked to oil. Nickel exposure is associated with cancer and cardiovascular diseases and manganese is linked to neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s.
Johnston can’t say definitively that oil drilling caused toxic metals to accumulate in people, but when the two metals are found together, it can be a signature of oil.
“These exposures aren’t naturally found, typically, in the body, and so when they’re at elevated levels it could be a concern,” Johnston said.
Corissa Pacillas Smith and her children Jethro, 3.5 and Fen, 1, live less than a mile away from the active Murphy oil site in South Los Angeles.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
For five years, Corissa Pacillas Smith and her husband lived about 500 feet from the Jefferson Site, in south Los Angeles. She saw workers in Hazmat suits at the site mere feet away from people’s windows. She experienced headaches from rotten egg smells, diesel fumes and the noise of metal pipes repeatedly driven into the ground.
“You have these intense smells wafting right into my living room,” she told EHN.
Smith was one of a group of neighbors who came together to organize against the Jefferson Site and began documenting violations.
In 2016, EarthJustice filed a petition for abatement of public nuisance, which prompted a public hearing. In 2017, the city’s zoning department found the Jefferson Site in violation of its conditions. The company decided it was too expensive to comply, and halted operations. EHN sent a list of questions to Sentinel Peak Resources, E&B Natural Resources and the California Independent Petroleum Association about these and other issues, but received no response.
In 2017, city council president Herb Wesson introduced a motion calling on the city’s petroleum administrator to eliminate oil drilling in residential areas.
Years later, in December 2022, the resulting ordinance would amend the city’s municipal code to phase out oil drilling by immediately banning new oil and gas extraction and requiring cessation of all existing oil and gas operations within a 20-year period. The 20-year period will give operators time to recoup investments, however, the city is also studying whether it can shut down some wells sooner if operators recoup their investments earlier. The city is also drafting a policy that would require proper abandonment of wells and site remediation within three-to-five years of operations ending and the city says oil companies will shoulder that responsibility.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a similar measure for the unincorporated parts of the city. The proposed ordinance would ban new oil wells and production facilities and give existing projects 20 years to halt operations. It also establishes regulations for existing extraction, including site signage, comment and complaint logs, requirements for site maintenance, bonds of existing wells and standards for abandonment and restoration.
The state has a new oil drilling law, too. SB-1137, which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, prohibits the Geologic Energy Management Division in California’s Department of Conservation from approving any notice of intention from a fossil fuel operator within 3,200 feet of a “sensitive receptor,” which includes homes, schools and healthcare centers.
Residents in the South Bay area of Los Angeles witnessed a near catastrophic accident when an explosion occured at the Torrance Refinery in 2015.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Jethro Pacillas Smith, 3, plays with a toy car at his home in South L.A., located just a few blocks away from the Murphy oil drill site.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Beginning in 2025, the law will require oil and gas production facilities and wells within the 3,200 foot “health protection zones” to comply with health and safety requirements related to sound levels, dust and particulates beyond property lines, emissions and vapor venting, and chemical analysis of water resulting from operations. Operators within a health protection zone must submit leak detection and response plans to the state division by January 2025, and implement those plans by Jan. 1, 2027. Operators must also hold public workshops as part of developing their leak detection and response plans. Violation of these requirements would be considered a crime.
Both the city’s draft ordinance and the new state law recognize that oil drilling hazards primarily harm communities of color, but they do little to immediately alleviate environmental racism. The real impact of the new laws will be felt by BIPOC communities in Los Angeles 20 years from now.
Rabeya Sen, director of policy at Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, one of the groups on the STAND-LA steering committee, has been involved in the fight against neighborhood drilling since 2014. Back then, the groups learned about the regulatory system and realized it was broken. “Because it was broken — whether by design or not — it was really putting industry profits over public health,” she told EHN.
She said the city ordinance passed on Dec. 2 was a “huge victory” for the community, but she had mixed feelings. As they celebrated, STAND-LA also called on city council members to resign for racist remarks on a recently published recording. “This one policy is one piece of so much more that the city has to do to really advance racial justice,” Sen said.
“It’s a start,” she said of the new city ordinance, acknowledging that it will take time before it has an impact. “I think 20 years is too long.” But she added that the city is studying amortization. “Our sincere hope is that they will find that the phase out needs to be much shorter than the current 20 years.”
Between nuisance abatement laws shutting down individual sites and the city ordinance phasing out drilling long term, she said one is not better than the other — the strategies work in concert with each other. She said STAND-LA set a goal in 2014 of creating a city where there was no oil drilling. That goal required long- and short-term strategies. “The nuisance abatement [laws] have been helpful because while we work toward this long term goal that took almost a decade, we still have to find ways to try to defend ourselves from the oil industry in the short term,” she said.
The Inglewood oil field in Los Angeles County produces nearly 2.5–3.1 million barrels of oil each year. It is considered the largest urban oil field in the United States and more than one million people live within five miles of the site.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Nicole Deziel, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said there is no scientifically established distance that would keep people safe — studies have found health risks up to and more than 3,280 feet from oil and gas wells.
She called California’s 3,200-foot setback “a positive step for public health,” while adding that setbacks don’t remove the source altogether. “Eliminating new drilling and phasing out existing wells is also a very powerful tool.” She said removing oil wells will both protect public health and address climate change.
“It would be great for public health to see other states following California’s lead and re-evaluating their setback policies and whether or not their setbacks really reflect the current science,” she told EHN.
After shutting down the Jefferson site, West Adams residents are turning their attention to the Murphy site. They hope to use the nuisance abatement strategy to stop drilling, as they have documented a long list of violations and health hazards at the site over the past two years.
For now, extraction continues.
Blue said as long as the drill sites are operating, additional protections are needed. “Twenty years without any of the protections is just 20 more years of poisoning.”
Academia has a youth problem. In the past few years, youth claimed more space in the climate change conversation. However, their participation in academic circles is still lacking.
The three of us met at a student-intensive workshop designed to foster student engagement in emerging environmental issues and challenges associated with the pandemic, hosted by experts across government, industry and academia. Students from around the country developed recommendations concerning policy, science and technology investment gaps, and communication considerations for enduring change. We reported our recommendations, presenting a foundation for experts to build upon. However, our peers’ ideas were left on the table.
Realizing our recommendations would not be followed up on was a great disappointment, especially because it included motivating ideas, like making academic articles freely available and understandable to the public, preventing social media algorithms from pandering toward political beliefs to drive engagement, fostering trust in the government by addressing and making reparations for historical traumas, welcoming international climate refugees and bridging the gap between science and government to solve real-world problems.
We pivoted to try and publish our ideas in an academic journal. We were shocked when each journal we contacted indicated that they had no place to publish the unsolicited opinions of youth. We believe excluding our voices represents a major shortcoming of journals in environmental health and science. It obstructs the institutional change we need to achieve climate goals and further disenfranchises a group that is already pessimistic about their future.
We’re tired of hearing leaders say we need creative solutions to climate issues, and then ignoring the creative solutions youth present.
Throughout history, marginalized groups have been excluded from institutions based on race, gender, sexuality, ability and age.
Credit: Hatice Yardım/Unsplash
There is bias in academia toward original research over discussion and commentary on new knowledge, which excludes youth because we have yet to acquire the experience and ability to conduct original research. Yet the thoughts, ideas and experiences of people from diverse backgrounds and motivations — who are influenced by the findings of academic scientists — can enhance conversations otherwise dominated by experts, often stuck doing niche research.
If we want to effectively address issues of climate change and health, the scientific community needs to make more space for those groups most impacted by their work. While holding an advanced degree can be portrayed as the superior path to knowledge, lived experiences can reveal powerful truths about greater societal patterns. The experiences of today’s youth are unlike any generations that came before us.
Throughout history, marginalized groups have been excluded from institutions based on race, gender, sexuality, ability and age. Excluding any group of people from participation hurts the validity of academic research. The good news is space can be made for youth within academic publications. Journals often include shorter pieces that don’t require original research such as editorials, letters, reviews and commentaries. These sections provide a place to spark discussion on controversial topics and share unique perspectives, and have been recommended by experts conducting interdisciplinary work. Youth can and should be engaged in this way; as we can approach these topics with fresh eyes and creative ideas even from early ages.
Academic journals influence decisions across entities essential to addressing planetary and health crises, like government, industry and academia. As young scientists invested in the future, we want to be engaged and make an impact through well-trafficked academic journals and not solely relegated to separate “youth spaces.”
We are not the first to argue that youth deserve a say in planetary health and health equity, as decisions in these domains will impact the majority of modern youth lifetimes. This is not a future problem, but an ongoing burden on our mental and physical health. However, youth do not deserve to be heard solely because we are highly invested in these ongoing crises — rather, we have the skills to address them.
Youth’s tech savvy is an asset, having grown up engaging with technology that more experienced generations generally struggle to navigate with fluency. Studies show that youth are exceptional at creating social capital and cohesion by way of social media, an ability that could help build support for, and resilience into, planetary and human health movements. This is exemplified by social capital’s ability to predict recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and as well as natural disasters. Moreover, the unbridled creativity of youth is generally unmatched, having yet to internalize the many real and falsely perceived constraints that life experience teaches.
The aforementioned skill sets can complement those of more experienced generations. Carving actionable solutions needs both youth’s creativity, and older generations’ wisdom and lessons-learned. Accomplished professionals have also accrued valuable resources (such as equipment, spaces and funds) and participate in networks that hold power, influence and seats at the decision-making table.
As youth engagement becomes more fashionable, it is important to discuss what constitutes engagement. The following are eight recommendations targeted toward youth’s inclusion in academic journals, but many are also applicable in other spheres of planetary and human health organizing.
Emory Hoelscher-Hull (she/her) is an undergraduate student at Montana State University where she studies Environmental Health. She can be reached at email@example.com
Joey Benjamin (he/him) is an undergraduate Sustainability and the Built Environment & Geodesign student at the University of Florida, where he has written about student volunteerism in community gardens. View more of his work on his ePortfolio or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sierra Hicks (they/them) is a Systems Engineering Ph.D. student at Cornell University and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Reach out to Sierra at email@example.com.
The authors acknowledge the insights shared by Ayesha Nagaria (Texas A&M), Caden Vitti (Penn State), Octavia Szkutnik (Penn State) that inspired this work.