N.C. State researcher angling for answers about pollutant’s impact

Posted 7/3/20

Scott Belcher is fishing to find chemicals in fish, and to help the fisherman who might eat them.

Belcher, a research professor at N.C. State, has been sampling fish in Jordan Lake, the Deep …

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N.C. State researcher angling for answers about pollutant’s impact

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Scott Belcher is fishing to find chemicals in fish, and to help the fisherman who might eat them.

Belcher, a research professor at N.C. State, has been sampling fish in Jordan Lake, the Deep River, the Haw River and other waterways in the Cape Fear basin in order to analyze how much PFAS is in the different tissues of the fish as part of the SAFE Water N.C. program.

PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — have been used in a variety of industrial, agricultural, military and commercial product applications since the 1940s. The same unique properties that made them attractive in those uses, however, makes them a persistent pollutant in the environment.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS chemicals “are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.”

In recent years, PFAS have been making their way into North Carolina’s water systems. The Town of Pittsboro has been working for years to find ways to clean these types of unregulated chemicals from its water system; they’re found at high levels in the Haw River, the source of the town’s drinking water.

Enter Belcher, who’s studied at the Yale University School of Medicine and received a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He’s working in conjunction with Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University, who is studying the effects of these chemicals on residents who are drinking the water. Belcher is sampling fish at the same sites as Stapleton’s team to determine how PFAS bioaccumulate in the fish — not only to see the dynamics of the chemicals from water to fish, but if and how fishermen who eat them may also be affected.

“Angling is the best way to do this,” Belcher said. “We’re trying to get representative fish that anglers are catching and consuming to determine the toxic properties and how they are being consumed.”

Belcher’s goal is to “protect public health with reasonable guidelines on consumption.” This, Belcher said, is especially important for underrepresented communities who may angle and eat fish as a source of food for the home.

COVID-19 has shut down Belcher’s lab — for the moment. He has been unable to test his most recent catches. Universities across the state have been issuing guidelines on re-opening based on the coronavirus. The N.C. State Office of Research and Innovation outlines the university’s research re-opening which limits the number of people in a lab space at a time. As a result, timelines for research studies have been extended.

But as soon as researchers were “cleared for field work,” in May, he was out catching fish and freezing them for when he has access to the labs again. Once back in the lab, his team will dissect the hundreds of fish they’ve caught from locations all along the Cape Fear Basin.

And once dissected, the fish different parts of the fish — gills, organs, eyes and fillets — will go through a process to determine the chemicals and the concentration of chemicals in the individual parts of the fish.

“We’re working really hard to understand how these toxins are getting into the fish that we are eating,” Belcher said.

Belcher’s previous research has identified high levels of PFAS and other toxins in fish and other wildlife in the food chain in the Cape Fear River Basin, particularly downstream of the Chemours plant in Wilmington — which was found to have been discharging high levels of Gen X, another unregulated chemical — into the Cape Fear River. The health effects for humans resulting from eating fish containing high levels of these chemicals is in the early stages. Even so, Belcher, who started his science career in medicine, is among a growing number of researchers who studying the effects of these chemicals on the community. The point of which is to help influence regulations and policies that will help improve the health and lives of the communities that rely on fish as a source of food.

And Belcher wants the communities most affected by the project to get involved. As part of the study, Belcher is trying to get anglers who are living or fishing along these waters to answer survey questions about how they fish, where they fish and what type of the fish they are eating. This way, the local community is contributing to the science.

“Making the science really community-based is our goal,” Belcher said. “It’s not just being lab coat wearing academics. It’s really taking care of the communities we live in.”

If you catch or eat fish from waters in the Cape Fear River basin and are between the ages of 18 and 64, you can participate in the anonymous survey about where you fish, what fish you catch or eat and how you prepare fish to eat. This will help guide Belcher to sample for commonly consumed fish to determine PFAS levels in these fish. The survey can be found online at tinyurl.com/safewaterfish. For additional information about the survey or the research, visit the website SAFEwaterNC.org.

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.


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