Fish Advisories - Is It Safe to Eat the Fish?

Karen Schaefer- In the 1970's Lake Erie was badly polluted. The Cuyahoga River caught fire more than once and in the Black River some fish developed cancerous tumors. It was a time when most people didn't even think about eating local fish.

Fisherman- We eat a lot of white bass, a lot of white bass. Yeah, sometimes we think about it, because we do hear on TV about how many you can eat during the week. So maybe I don't really pay too much attention, because I eat fish almost every other day.

KS- But that's changed in recent years. The health of Lake Erie has vastly improved and fish are once again living in streams and rivers like the Cuyahoga. In fact, the sport fishing industry touts Lake Erie as the walleye capitol of the world. State health officials encourage fishermen to enjoy their catches. But they want to warn people that there are still health risks associated with eating some fish from some waters too often.

Bob Johnson- Typically we'll update these fish advisories annually about February and March.

KS- Since 1976, the state health department has been providing guidelines to anglers so they and their families can limit consumption of fish likely to contain unacceptable levels of contaminants. Bob Johnson heads the department's fish advisory program. He says there are a number of toxic substances that can accumulate in the fish food chain.

BJ- The chemicals that we are concerned about are those that persist in the environment. And they what we term bio-accumulate in the fish. The particular chemicals that we look for are PCB's or polychlorinated biphenals. Mercury, of course, is one of those.

KS- In general, Johnson says older fish, predatory species, and bottom-feeding fish may accumulate more toxins, although each body of water is different. Human exposure to contaminants like PCB's can be reduced by cutting away fish fat where toxins are stored. But mercury is different. A naturally-occurring metal found in low levels throughout the environment, mercury is also released into the atmosphere from coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources. It's deposited in lakes and streams and fish distribute the toxin throughout their bodies. Johnson says this year, the U.S. EPA updated its guidelines for consumption of mercury-laden fish, based on a new study by the National Academy of Sciences.

BJ- U.S. EPA and the FDA have both come out with advisories for mercury. You might call them a nationwide advisory. They recommend that women of childbearing age eat no more than one meal a week of any fish.

KS- But some environmentalists and doctors say those warnings don't go far enough. Dr. Cynthia Bearer is a neonatal physician with University Hospitals in Cleveland. She says a chemical spill in Japan demonstrates the deadly effect of mercury on the childhood development of the central nervous system.

Cynthia Bearer- The mothers were not sick in these cases. The majority of them were normal. And yet these children were devastated. The effects are what we call subclinical. What they're going to do is limit these children's neurologic development.

KS- Dr. Bearer is not alone in wanting to protect the most sensitive populations from mercury poisoning. In April of this year, the Public Interest Research Groups and the Environmental Working Group co-authored a new report that charges the federal Food and Drug Administration's mercury warnings are inadequate. Margaux Shields is with Ohio PIRG.

Margaux Shields- The analysis found that if all women followed the FDA's advice on fish consumption, that one million American women could have blood level mercury higher than is considered safe by the National Academy of Science during at least 30 days of their pregnancy.

Mike Bolger- That's their right, but we don't agree with them.

KS- But Mike Bolger, who heads the FDA's toxicity assessment program for food safety, says the environmentalists' concerns are not grounded in science.

MB- There are lots of arguments, okay... about the use of the particular study that was used to derive the reference dose. There are lots of concerns about whether that in fact is showing an adverse effect. You know, when we deal with methyl mercury, we have to make sure that the science is clear-cut. That in fact, what we're looking at is a methyl mercury-associated effect. And so far, that is not clear to us.

KS- Bolger says a new study in the Seychelles Islands near India has been tracking the effects of mercury levels on children now seven years old. That study could be released this fall. Bolger believes comparing the results of that study with another from the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic may help refine the debate over mercury poisoning. In the meantime, both government officials and environmentalists urge people who regularly eat fish caught in Ohio waters to pay attention to fish consumption advisories.

Fisherman- So I'm eating too many fish, huh. I mean, per week. I'm eating too many? I don't know, I guess I should wise up to it and really look into it. If it's that bad...

KS- In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN News.

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