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Water Pollution Regulations Underestimate Fish Consumption, Endangering Public Health

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FISH POLLUTION
Pike's Place Market, Seattle | AFP/Getty Images

One fillet of fish a month. That's about how much seafood a Washington State resident eats, according to the assumptions used to set cleanliness standards for the state's abundant rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters. But many experts say that estimate, which influences the safety of the state's salmon, clams and other edible aquatic life, doesn't jive with reality.

"It's a gross underestimate," says Catherine O'Neill, a law school professor and faculty fellow at the Center for Indian Law and Policy at Seattle University. She said the one-fillet-a-month metric is too low for the general population, and an even worse estimate for the large number of Asian Americans and native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, for whom seafood plays a central dietary role.

"People are recommended to eat more fish than that, irrespective of culture," O'Neill tells The Huffington Post. The American Health Association advises eating the omega-3-rich food at least twice a week.

'TEETHING ON SALMON JERKY'

Washington is one of 13 states -- from Connecticut to Alaska -- that currently employs a fish consumption standard of approximately 8 ounces a month, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Washington is now reevaluating that figure, a move that has been a long time coming, according to O’Neill. For years, she and other experts have voiced their concerns. They know that mercury, cadmium, organic compounds such as Polychlorinated biphenyls -- known commonly as PCBs -- and other toxins that get discharged and accumulate up the food chain can cause serious health problems, from suppressed mental development in children to cancer and liver problems later in life.

Larger long-lived fish, like tuna, tend to build up more toxins. "The little fish eat it, then the bigger fish eat the little fish, and humans eat the bigger fish," says Hanady Kader, spokesperson for EPA in Seattle. "This is a big concern."

For many communities, the consequences also go beyond just health concerns.

"Traditional families are still very active in the smokehouse. They are still fishing for their primary source of living," says Jamie Donatuto, an environmental specialist for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, in La Conner, Wash. "Fish are not just a source of nutrients, they have cultural and spiritual meaning for these people."

Donatuto has been working with the Swinomish tribe for more than a decade on the issue. She recently conducted a survey and found that if tribal members had access to as much safe seafood as they wanted, they would consume more than 100 times the state's estimate.

"In the Pacific Northwest, fish consumption is a way of life. It's an important cultural hallmark of tribal nations that live here," adds Elaine Faustman, a professor of environmental and occupational health studies at the University of Washington.

In fact, as she points out, it's not uncommon to find kids "teething on salmon jerky."

OUTDATED AND UNETHICAL?

The one-fillet guideline was set by the EPA in the 1980s, based on a commercial diet study conducted in the 1970s. To arrive at that standard, which adds up to about 200 grams (8 ounces) a month or 6.5 grams (0.32 ounces) a day, the EPA considered fish consumers and non-consumers alike and excluded salmon.

The estimate was also "based on some interesting guesswork," says O'Neill. "There's real question of whether that was ever representative of consumption, even nationally."

Even accurate universal averages are rarely applicable on the local level. "Fish is not consumed on average," says Dr. Frank James, a private practice physician in Bellingham, Wash. "It's the high-level consumers that matter and should be protected."

Regulators use various factors, including fish consumption and body weight, when they determine the "reasonable maximum exposure" for a toxin, or the level at which around 90 or 95 percent of a population is protected.

This is generally good enough to allow regulators "to sleep at night," says O'Neill. But it's a different story when the identities of those most exposed are actually known. "Then it becomes a question of justice," she says. "In this case, everyone is not equally likely to be in that top 5 or 10 percent."

Other parts of the country may have their own easily-identifiable top seafood consumers. Minnesota is home to a large Hmong population, for example, in addition to native tribes.

"These people eat an awful lot of fish, and don't all read fish consumption advisories," says Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Environmental Program in Cloquet, Minn.

And as hard as some of these vulnerable groups might try, there's often little they can do to protect themselves. They can use their jurisdiction to set more realistic consumption levels for tribal waters, but enforcement is difficult. Further, their treaty rights allow them to fish outside the reservation.

"Pollution doesn't respect political boundaries," O'Neill adds. "And fish don't stay put."

Mariam Rotkin-Ellman, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, points to another example on the Gulf Coast. After the BP oil spill, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration used a national survey to determine a shellfish consumption rate of four shrimp a week, which they applied to water quality standards for the region. She recalls the reaction of a New Orleans' resident: "Four shrimp a week don't even make up a po'boy sandwich!"

Rotkin-Ellman recently co-authored a study that critiqued the FDA's estimate, highlighting local surveys that found that seafood consumption can be up to five times as high.

"Historically, we haven't done a very good job of ensuring that the most vulnerable are protected," Rotkin-Ellman tells HuffPost. "It's essential that we recognize that there's variability in the population and that we set our guidelines, standards and warnings to protect those high-end consumers."

REVISITING REGULATIONS

In 2003, the EPA acknowledged that the 1980s-era consumption rate was unrealistic. They issued a new recommended consumption rate of 17.5 grams per day -- about as much fish as fits on a cracker -- and recommended that states and tribes consider local data to ensure the standard reflects their particular population.

Still, the new 17.5-gram default is based on data that includes non-fish-eaters. "From a public health perspective, that doesn't make sense," says O'Neill. "If you're worried about people being exposed, it makes no sense to direct standards to people who aren't eating fish. It's like directing an anti-smoking campaign at nonsmokers."

Twenty states, including Texas and Montana, have adopted the new default. Others have pushed their own more rigorous guidelines. New York now uses 33 grams per day as their assumption. And last month, EPA approved Oregon's new daily standard of 175 grams -- currently the most stringent in the country.

"Bottomline, with the new standards that will go into effect over time, Oregon's fish will be healthier and safer," says EPA's Kader.

Still, more than a quarter of the states continue to regulate using the old 6.5-grams-a-day rate, despite the requirement under the Clean Water Act that states and tribes review their water quality standards at least once every three years.

Following Oregon's lead, Washington has started the reevaluation process for themselves, looking at surveys from native tribes and taking comments from residents and stakeholders, says Martha Hankins, a policy analyst for the Washington State Department of Ecology.

She suggests that the new rate will be in the 150 gram to 275 gram per day range.

Industry is taking notice. They realize that raising the rate of consumption would translate into lower permissible discharge levels, and therefore higher water treatment costs. "We are concerned about the effects of any further regulations on an already heavily regulated industry, especially in this down economy‚" says Christian McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.

"This is going to be a battle," says Donatuto, the Swinomish Indian environmental specialist. Water pollution is just one of many challenges -- including toxic algae blooms and warming waters -- facing water and seafood quality, she acknowledges.

"But this is a big one," she adds. "And it's a low hanging fruit that we can reach."

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