Aircraft Chemical Found in Great Lakes Fish

  • Researchers from Environment Canada discovered a chemical used in aircraft fluids in walleye and lake trout. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division)

New research finds that fish in the Great Lakes are contaminated with a chemical used in aircraft hydraulic fluids. Julie Grant reports:

Researcher Amila DeSilva works for Environment Canada, which is like the EPA in the U.S.

She says there have been studies on a number of perflourinated chemicals. They’re used to make textiles, upholstery, paper, and many other things. Studies have shown these types of chemicals can have toxic effects in humans. But not much is known about a chemical she calls PFECHS. I’ll let her pronounce the full name:

DeSilva: “Perfluoroethylcyclohexanesulfonate.”

DeSilva says no one has really studied whether its toxic. She wanted to see if PFECHS was in the environment, so she and her colleagues sampled water and fish in the Great Lakes, specifically lake trout and walleye:

“We were really, really surprised to find it in fish. Because, just based on the structure and our chemical intuition we thought, ‘okay, it would be more likely to be in water than in fish’ so when we found it in fish, when you find anything in fish, it’s a whole other ballgame because humans consume fish.”

DeSilva says other perflourinated acids are endocrine disruptors. That means they create hormone imbalances in humans, and they have other toxic effects. She says once these chemicals are released into the environment they don’t degrade, they just build up. That’s why use of some chemicals in this class is highly restricted in the U.S. and Canada.

Read an abstract of the Great Lakes fish study

A five-part Environment Report series on flame retardants


“PFECHS on the other hand is still approved for use, and mainly because its specialized use in aircraft hydraulic fluid, was believed to not really lead to environmental contamination, it was thought to be contained.”

DeSilva says the company 3M was the largest producer of PFECHS, until it stopped making the chemical 2002. She says Environment Canada believes it is still being made elsewhere, and is still in use on military bases.

DeSilva says her team’s research shows PFECHS contamination may be as widespread as the other perflourinated chemicals. She says the next step is to see whether PFECHS moves up the food chain – to find whether it builds up in people who eat contaminated fish.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

Flame retardant chemicals help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire. They’re called PBDEs. That stands for polybrominated diphenyl ethers. They’re in our couches, our office chairs and the padding under our carpet. The problem is… they don’t stay put. Scientists have known for a while that the chemicals leach out of products and get into our bodies. Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, changes to thyroid systems, and fertility problems.

The chemicals are also widespread in the animal kingdom.

A new study in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry looks at how these chemicals might be affecting frogs.

Bill Karasov is one of the authors of the study. He’s been looking at how PBDEs affect the development of northern leopard frogs. His team fed the frogs a diet tainted with PBDEs at levels they would encounter in the wild.

“Even at all concentrations of PBDES down to our very lowest, the growth rate and rate of development of the tadpoles was slowed down. And we also found at the end of the study that the chemical had accumulated in their tissues.”

Karasov says they also saw increased mortality in the tadpoles.

He’s going on to study whether flame retardant chemicals affect frogs’ immune systems.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.