Wild Things: PFAS in Fish? They’re in the Air, Water & Soil

Outdoor correspondent Kevin Naze believes the Kewaunee and Door County sport and commercial fishery could take a hit if fish eaters don’t read beyond the recent headlines.

by KEVIN NAZE, [email protected], Peninsula Pulse contributor

If you watch the nightly news, listen to a local radio station or read the headlines online or in print, odds are you’ve seen the recent hype about PFAS in fish. 

The latest study that spawned the media blitz comes from the Environmental Working Group, a research advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that found that freshwater fish across the country have high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and that the levels were highest in Great Lakes fish.

PFAS are human-made chemicals that have been used for decades in numerous products, including nonstick cookware, fast-food wrappers and certain types of firefighting foam. They have made their way into the environment in many ways, including spills and wastewater discharges. Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” and listed as possible carcinogens, PFAS have been found in drinking water, soil and many foods. 

(As an aside, I’ve always wondered: If the chemicals are so bad, why have populations of fish-eating birds such as cormorants and white pelicans exploded in recent decades?)

PFAS have been found in the air and in soil, rainwater and surface water around the world. The Wisconsin Division of Health website notes that most people in the U.S. have PFAS in their blood. The website also says that research suggests that high levels of PFAS may increase cholesterol levels and blood pressure, decrease how well the body responds to vaccines, increase the risk of thyroid disease and kidney or testicular cancer, and decrease fertility in women.

The story getting headlines this time around says that eating just one freshwater fish could be the same as drinking PFOS-contaminated water for a month. (PFOS is short for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, which is part of the PFAS chemical class.)

Never mind that thousands of us lifelong Great Lakes anglers have eaten hundreds – and in some cases, thousands – of freshwater fish throughout the years.

If you’re concerned about the headlines, dive deeper. You’ll find scientists who have criticized the Environmental Working Group for some of its research. Some have even called the group out for sloppy science, exaggerating toxicological risks and duping reporters into publishing its tales, essentially turning public panic into a steady stream of donations.

The latest spoon-fed scare might rival the late-1980s hit piece by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which warned of a one-in-100,000 cancer risk if you ate Great Lakes fish, or a one-in-10,000 risk if you ate fish from the highly contaminated (and since remediated) Fox River in Green Bay.

Spooky stuff, right? Not really, when compared to the actual risk that individuals have of getting cancer in their lifetime: about one in three, according to the American Cancer Society.

More than three decades ago, when I covered the NWF’s attempt to clean up the Great Lakes by using the sport and commercial fishery as a sacrificial lamb, I dove in head first by taking part in a Wisconsin Division of Health PCB study.

Those of us who participated had to eat at least a half pound of Great Lakes fish each week that year and keep a journal. Our blood was sampled early on, and again five years later as a follow-up. 

My result? Despite eating far more Great Lakes fish than required, I had no significant accumulation of PCBs in my blood. 

Of course, I still encourage concerned fish eaters to follow the state’s advice about properly cleaning and cooking fish, and selecting species of fish – or smaller, younger fish – that contain the lowest levels of contaminants. 

But the bottom line, in my view? Eat more wild things and fewer processed things. Worry less. Exercise more.

Decades ago, I often shared the oldest, fattest lake trout I caught with commercial-fishing widows who loved them. It was at the height of the PCB scare, and the head of the Division of Health told me those were the only fish he wouldn’t eat. 

Consider the irony there. Those strong and healthy widows of 80- and 90-plus years had been eating lake trout all of their lives. 

Find more about fish consumption in Wisconsin at Learn more about PFAS at

Comment on Wolves

The DNR is holding a Feb. 7 public listening session on its proposed updated wolf-management plan. That’s in addition to the online comment period, which is open through Feb. 28.

To provide input during the Feb. 7 Zoom session, register by 12 pm on Feb. 6. To just listen, tune in to the live stream on the DNR’s YouTube channel at

Both the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and Wisconsin Conservation Congress have filed objections to the draft plan. The only member of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s board of directors to vote against sending a letter to the DNR – naming 32 objections to the plan and the reasons why – was Tom Hauge, a former DNR Bureau of Wildlife director and co-chair of Wisconsin Green Fire’s wildlife workgroup. 

Learn more and comment online at