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Private Seafood Tests Uncover Toxins Missed By Feds

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Consumers used to worry about ordering seafood fried, instead of the healthier broiled-or-stewed option, but since the BP spill they're unsure about whether to eat it at all. Independent testing by environmental groups and individuals has accelerated since last April, and they've found toxins -- from oil, dispersants and other sources--in the local catch.

Government agencies, meanwhile, say seafood from reopened, Gulf fishing areas is safe to eat. The upshot for consumers is that when buying fish, ask questions and listen to any information that comes your way.

Peter Brabeck, environmental monitor at the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said last week, "we received test results a week ago from samples of oysters collected in Terrebonne Bay and Grand Bayou Felicity in Lafourche Parish." Those samples were tested by a Wisconsin lab run by Pace Analytical Services, which also has a sediment-and-water lab in St. Rose, La. The Bucket Brigade sent three, separate samples to Wisconsin, where they were chemically tested in batches of 7 to 9 oysters each.

"To my horror, the results showed extremely elevated levels of cadmium -- which is associated with oil from the BP spill," Brabeck said. The cadmium detected was 150 to 200 times what's considered safe for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency's carcinogenicity 'RfD' or oral reference doses for food, he said.

When asked about reference doses, a U.S. EPA spokesman in Washington, said "information can be found at the RfD table on our Integrated Risk Information System web page for cadmium." The agency's RfD for human studies involving chronic, cadmium exposure is 1E-3 mg/kg/day for food. "The E in those numbers refers to exponents in scientific notation," he said. Health information is posted on the agency's IRIS, based on reviews of chronic, toxicity data by EPA scientists.

Brabeck said "the reason we had oysters tested for cadmium is that it's a carcinogen that can linger in the body for 20 to 30 years, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration labs don't test for it." Manufacturing facilities might have been the source of the cadmium, he said, but added "since these oysters came from a heavily oiled area, I would lean toward them being contaminated from BP's finest."

He continued, "Now we're waiting for lab results to come back on samples of oysters, shrimp, crabs and snails collected in Barataria Bay and Terrebonne Bay." Brabeck visits the coast frequently and ventures into the water. "A week and a half ago in Barataria Bay, the area where I was collecting samples had visible oil sheen, along with weathered mats of oil -- that were over an inch thick in places -- covering the marshes," he said. "Yet these areas were open for fishing, and shrimping boats were in the very same water."

Testing by other environmental groups has yielded worrisome results. Paul Orr, whose title is "River-keeper" at Lower Mississippi River-keeper in Baton Rouge, said his organization -- along with its parent Louisiana Environmental Action Network -- began collecting seafood samples from the coast in early August to analyze the spill's impacts. Oysters, crabs and fin fish were gathered from twenty locations between the western edge of Terrebonne Parish and the Louisiana-Mississippi border. They were tested for total petroleum hydrocarbons or TPHs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. Testing was done by two, commercial-lab companies, using EPA-recognized protocols, Orr said.

"All of the seafood organisms that we collected came back with TPH levels that were of concern to us, and a number of them were very, very high," Orr said. "As far as we can determine after talking with researchers and a toxicologist, there should be no detectable levels of TPH in seafood. We also found some high levels of total PAH's."

Orr continued, saying "some of the organisms we tested came from waters that were open for fishing, and the samples all looked beautiful. They smelled good, and there was nothing that made me think that they might be contaminated with oil."

Orr doubted anything would be found in the first oyster samples that the group sent for testing. "But they came back from the lab containing 9,780 mg/kg of total petroleum hydrocarbons, which was a bit alarming. Since then, we've sampled from the western edge of Terrebonne Parish to the Louisiana-Mississippi line, and the results we got back suggest to me that the government's 'all clear' was sounded far too soon."

Last October, Nancy "Mac" MacKenzie from NOLA Emergency Response bought two pounds of shrimp from a Venice, La. dock and sent the digestive tracts, along with some stock that she prepared from the heads and shells, to Analytical Chemical Testing Lab, Inc. in Alabama. She said "I'm a teacher, not a scientist, but I'm also a cook and wanted to know what was in the the shrimp after the spill."

She continued, saying "after making the stock, I threw away the turkey baster I used to transfer my stock from the pot to specimen jars, because it had orange, oily spots on it that I couldn't get out--even by soaking it with boiling water."

Her lab-test results showed "oil and grease" in the shrimps' digestive tracts in amounts of 193 parts per million. After a series of phone calls to the FDA, the Unified Command in response to the Deepwater spill, NOAA, EPA and poison experts, she learned that her test results were many times above safe consumption levels. But she also found out that "there's no 'acceptable level' for oil in general." She said that since various oils are composed of different concentrations of chemicals, metals and compounds, the government calculates safe consumption levels based on components, like benzene and toulene.

Meanwhile, the report on MacKenzie's shrimp stock showed "PAH's that were below the lab's minimum level of detection," which, she said, didn't ensure it was safe to eat.

MacKenzie received a response from a U.S. Coast Guard public affairs officer late last year, saying that analytical methods for oil and grease can't distinguish between petroleum oils and other fatty materials, including fats that occur in shrimp. She remains upset by the runaround that she got from federal agencies, and said that seafood information presented on their websites can be difficult to understand. She also said that paying for private testing is expensive.

Robert Naman, president of Analytical Chemical Testing Lab, Inc. in Mobile, Alabama, said that without seeing the test results from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade samples, it's possible that cadmium found in local oysters is from soil contaminated by manufacturing plants. Nonetheless, he said, "large and small labs in Louisiana and across the Gulf are finding elevated PAHs, associated with the spill, in seafood."

He also said "current FDA protocol allows much higher concentrations of Petroleum Hydrocarbons in seafood sold to consumers than the government allowed after the Exxon Valdez spill" in 1989.

"Many individuals have come to us to have seafood, water and tarballs tested since the spill," Naman said. His firm, for example, tested water in a fish pond on an Alabama property half a mile from the beach. The fresh water fish had died, and the pond water tested positive for dispersants. The owner drained, refilled and restocked the pond, and the second batch of fish died.

"We also found dispersant in swimming pools near the coast," Naman, a chemist, said. "We suspect dispersants were sprayed on the coastline though that's illegal for the most part." The U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA authorize dispersant use.

Naman said "tarballs we tested recently were 7% oil, and the rest was COREXIT dispersant and watery goop. A thick sludge containing petroleum and dispersant covers part of the Gulf ocean floor that could be seen in government, satellite photos if they wanted to show them to us."

Meanwhile, Washington agencies say Gulf seafood is safe to eat. Christine Patrick, NOAA spokeswoman, said "under government protocol to reopen fishing areas, waters must be free from oil, and every seafood sample taken from an area must pass a sensory and a chemical test." Since the spill, four phases of sampling and testing have occurred in fishing areas, and they are characterized as baseline, boundary-surveillance, reopening and post-opening stages by NOAA. Boundary surveillance was the sampling done to make sure that all tainted fish were included inside a specific area, Patrick said.

During the four phases, NOAA vessels have collected samples at sea and delivered them to the agency's Pascagoula, Miss. seafood lab for analysis. Samples continue to be taken from docks and processing plants.

"NOAA is conducting post-opening sampling now to support consumer confidence that fish in open areas of the Gulf are testing clean," Patrick said.

Since late April of last year, about 10,000 seafood samples have been collected and tested by the government, she said. "Post-opening samples number about a thousand to date, and all have passed sensory and chemical analysis." As sampling continues in the Gulf, the only remaining federal area that's closed to fishing is near BP's wellhead.

"All Gulf samples, state or federal, go to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory within NOAA's Pascagoula facility, where they're dissected, with tissues put into sterile jars for analysis," Patrick said. Samples are examined by a Pascagoula sensory panel -- made up of NOAA and FDA experts. "During the reopening phase, it's a seven-person panel of more than seven, rotating experts, and during the post-opening phase, it's a panel of three," she said. The lab's staff of over a hundred includes scientists and technicians.

Sensory testing is a longstanding method used in the food industry, and it is a science, Patrick said. "Reopening protocol calls for 21 tests on raw and cooked seafood for taste and smell, and in order for a sample to pass, five of seven panelists must pass it."

Chemical testing, including dispersant testing, for samples taken from federal waters is done at NOAA's lab in Seattle, while state samples are chemically tested by FDA labs elsewhere. NOAA and the FDA developed a chemical test, announced in late October, to detect dispersant in fish tissues.

"However, none of the thousands of fish tested in Seattle and elsewhere showed dispersant residue at levels harmful to humans, and over 99% of the over 4,000 samples tested so far had no detectable residue at all," Patrick said.

NOAA on Feb. 2 reopened 4,200 square miles that were closed to fishing after a royal red shrimper's net yielded tarballs last October. When asked about the reopening, Brabeck of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said "NOAA and FDA continue to make decisions affecting consumers based on too few samples, not sampling for all the toxins, not testing for all the metals and not listening to what scientists, fishermen and nonprofit groups are saying. They have shown the same woefully inadequate protocol in every fishery reopening since the well was capped."

Brabeck shows community groups how to take seafood samples. "These groups are actively engaged in seafood issues, and they decide what they want to test for," he said. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade does training and pays for tests--which can be expensive. "Once we have results, we bring an interpretation of the numbers to the community where the samples were taken, and report what the results can mean for environmental and public health," he said. "This should be the job of the FDA and NOAA, and it sickens me that it's not being done by our government."