Fish consumption warnings increase on US rivers

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June 15, 2002

More states warn public: Some fish not safe to eat

By Seth Borenstein, Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON — More American waters than ever bore warnings against eating their contaminated fish last year, according to the federal government.

It's not that there's more pollution, most scientists agree. Rather, states are doing a better job of checking for contaminated fish and warning the public.

Because pollutants build up in their bodies, the most likely fish to be affected are big, long-lived ones, especially fish that eat other fish. Among them are bass, grouper, red snapper, pike, swordfish, tuna and king mackerel.

According to data to be announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) next week, the number of miles of rivers with health advisories about fish consumption increased 33 percent from 2000 to 2001. Overall, one of every seven miles of U.S. rivers last year bore a warning against eating one or more species of their fish.

Total acreage of U.S. lakes with similar warnings increased 7.6 percent from 2000 to 2001. More than one-quarter of all lake waters merited warnings.

All of the Great Lakes and their connecting waters and nearly three-quarters of America's coastal waters had warnings about eating fish, the EPA found.

The agency intends to publicize the figures as the U.S. fishing season kicks in.

Of five toxins monitored by officials, the biggest and fastest-growing problem is mercury. It comes mostly from emissions of coal-fired power plants that settle into waters.

Mercury hinders brain development in fetuses and young children, so women of childbearing age and young children are cautioned especially to curb consumption of seafood likely to contain mercury.

The proportion of U.S. rivers and lakes covered by mercury-in-fish warnings more than quadrupled between 1993 and 2001, the EPA report said.

"It's certainly still safe to fish on most of our lakes and rivers," said Forbes Darby, spokesman for the American Sportsfishing Association, a trade group in Alexandria, Va. "We've made huge progress in the quality of our waterways in the past decade."

The figures reflect that "states are clearly increasing their monitoring efforts, casting a wider net, collecting more information with more sites among the waters, getting out more information to the public," said Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA deputy assistant administrator for water issues. "That's a positive aspect to the whole story."

However, the message isn't reaching everybody.

States largely are responsible for monitoring their fish. States differ greatly in how they test, what their toxic thresholds are and how they warn the public, said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington environmental organization that studies mercury in fish issues.

Some states, such as Ohio, New Jersey and Minnesota, have strict mercury contamination thresholds. Others, including Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia, have loose ones, according to a 2001 report by Houlihan.

The EPA is trying to persuade states to adopt stricter thresholds and beef up public-warning systems, Grumbles said.

"We don't have reason to believe that the (actual contamination) levels are getting worse," he said yesterday. EPA studies show the increase is from increased monitoring of fish, he said.

Marine chemists agree. "The more we look for it in our fish, the more we're going to find it," said Jane Guentzel, marine chemistry professor at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Allowing older, coal-fired power plants to expand without reducing pollution, as the EPA proposed Thursday, could worsen the problem, the Environmental Working Group's Houlihan said.

"Every year we put more and more mercury into the atmosphere that rains down and accumulates in fish," he said.

Nearly 58 percent of mercury compounds released into the air in 2000 came from electric utilities, according to an EPA study. President Bush this year announced a plan that he said would cut mercury emissions by more than half by 2010 and by 69 percent by 2018.

The number of miles of river subject to mercury-in-fish warnings increased 48 percent from 2000 to 2001. In lakes, the increase was 7 percent. Warnings for fish containing the banned pesticide DDT increased about 6 percent.
 

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