Ten Threats: Mercury and Health Problems

  • Fish advisories warn about possible mercury contamination, but many people aren't aware of the risks. (Photo by Lester Graham)

There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ One of the
threats identified by experts was air pollution that in turn pollutes the
lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide
in this series. He says the next report looks at one pollutant that
eventually affects people.


There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:


Three years ago, when she was 18, Ayla Brown was healthy, but
suddenly, she started getting sick all the time. She was always tired, she
became anemic and had sore throats. Her tonsils had deteriorated so
much that they had to be removed. Her doctor couldn’t figure out why,
so he decided to test her for heavy metals poisoning.


The result? Ayla’s mercury levels were off the charts. They were five
times higher than the normal level. Her entire family was tested and
their levels also were above normal.


“The only conclusion we could come to is that in the past year or so since
we had moved to Ann Arbor, we had started eating a lot of fish and a lot
of fish that we now know is very known to be high in mercury, such as
swordfish and tuna and stuff like that.”


The Browns ate several meals of fish every week. Some of it was
ocean fish. Some of it was Great Lakes fish. After the diagnosis, they
cut fish out of their diet altogether. Within a year, the mercury levels
returned to normal.


“You are trying so hard to eat healthy and my family always was very
health conscious and so it’s so frustrating when you’ve done something
that you thought was good for you and realize that it was completely the
wrong thing.”


Fish are generally considered part of a healthy diet, but not all fish are
entirely safe. That’s because of mercury. Mercury exists naturally in the
environment at low levels, but higher amounts are getting into the food
chain.


Coal-burning power plants emit mercury, which eventually settles into
the Great Lakes. Then, aquatic microorganisms convert the substance
into methyl mercury, which is more toxic.


Those microorganisms form the base of the food chain. Small fish eat
microorganisms. Then, larger fish eat the smaller ones. As that happens,
the mercury concentrations escalate, making big large mouth fish like
trout, salmon and some walleye especially contaminated.


When people eat the fish, the mercury is passed on to them. Women of
childbearing age and their fetuses are most at risk.


Michael Carvan is with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Great
Lakes Water Institute. He says the exposure isn’t just from the fish that
women eat while they’re pregnant. A woman can pass her entire lifetime
load of mercury to her baby. He says that 15% of all women of
childbearing age have high enough levels so that their fetuses will
contain mercury of one part per million or higher.


“Even at really low levels, around one part per million, you’re talking
about some subtle coordination difficulties, you’re talking about
problems with memory and problems with neuro-processing and IQ
deficits.”


Because of these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency and
the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory for women of
childbearing age and children, suggesting they eat fish and shellfish only
twice a week.


But one expert is concerned by all this talk about how mercury harms
people. John Dellinger was on a task force, which provided guidance on
fish consumption advisories. Dellinger studied people who lived on
Lake Superior who he thought would eat a lot of fish, but he found
something else.


“We basically discovered that from an epidemiologic point of view, these
populations have other things that are adversely affecting their health,
that in fact will probably overshadow anything we’re going to see from
the contaminants in their fish.”


Dellinger said the people were so concerned about contaminants in
fish, that they started relying on store-bought, processed food instead.
Those foods were higher in fat and sugar and contained other, less
healthful, ingredients. So, obesity and diabetes caused health problems,
not mercury poisoning, and Dellinger says that ended up being a worse
situation.


He says the key is to choose wisely, avoiding fish such as swordfish,
tuna steaks and the larger predator Great Lakes fish that are high in
mercury. That’s the only measure you can take right now, but that doesn’t
solve the problem. The real challenge will be to get rid of the mercury
that ends up contaminating the fish.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.

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Ten Threats: Air Pollution Into Water Pollution

  • Air deposition is when air pollution settles out into lakes and streams and becomes water pollution. (Photo by Lester Graham)

We’re continuing our series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our guide through the series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats that experts identified is air pollution that finds its way into the Great Lakes:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes’. Our guide through the
series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats is air pollution that
finds its way into the Great Lakes:


It’s called ‘Air Deposition.” Melissa Hulting is a scientist at U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. We asked her just what that means:


“Air deposition simply is just when materials, in this case pollutants, are transferred from
the air to the water. So, pollutants in particles can fall into the water. Pollutants in rain
can fall into the water, or pollutants in a gas form can be absorbed into the water.”


So, it’s things like pesticides that evaporate from farm fields and end up in the rain over
the Great Lakes. PCBs in soil do the same. Dioxins from backyard burning end up in the
air, and then are carried to the lakes


One of the pollutants that causes a significant problem in the Great Lakes is mercury. It
gets in the water. Then it contaminates the fish. We eat the fish and mercury gets in us.
It can cause babies to be born with smaller heads. It can cause nervous system damage
and lower IQ in small children if women of childbearing age or children eat too much
fish.


One of the notable sources of mercury is from power plants that burn coal.


(Sound of coal car)


Railroad cars like this one empty their tons of coal at power plants all across the nation.
More than half of the electricity in the nation is produced at coal-burning power plants,
and with a 250-year supply, coal is going to be the primary fuel for a while.


One coal producing state is acknowledging that mercury is a problem. Doug Scott is the
Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He says coal is important to
the energy mix, but we need to reduce pollutants such as mercury as much as possible.


“The policy of the state has been to try to work with the power plants to try to burn
Illinois coal as cleanly as you can. Now, that means a lot more equipment and a lot more
things that they have to do to be able to make that work, but we’re committed to trying to
do both those things.”


And, Scott says the federal government’s mercury reduction program does not go far
enough soon enough, but the electric utility industry disagrees.


Dan Riedinger is spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a power industry trade
organization. Riedinger says, really reducing mercury emissions at power plants just
won’t make that much difference.


“Power plants contribute relatively little to the deposition of mercury in any one area of
the country, including the Great Lakes, and no matter how much we reduce mercury
emissions from power plants in the Great Lakes Region, it’s really not going to have a
discernable impact in terms of improving the levels of mercury in the fish people want to eat.”


“Relatively little? Now, that flies in the face of everything I’ve read so far. Everything
I’ve read, indicates coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to the mercury
issue in the Great Lakes and other places.”


“It’s really not quite that simple. Power plants are a significant source of mercury
emissions here in the United States, but most of the mercury that lands in the Great
Lakes, particularly in the western Great Lakes is going to come from sources outside of
the United States.”


Well, it’s not quite that simple either. The U.S. EPA’s Melissa Hulting agrees some of
the mercury in the Great Lakes comes from foreign sources, but recent studies show
some mercury settles out fairly close to the smokestacks. She says you can blame both
for the mercury in your fish.


“You blame the sources that are close by and you blame the sources that are far away.
The bottom line with mercury is that we’re all in this together and it’s going to take
everybody reducing their sources to take care of the problem.”


Taking care of the problem is going to take some money, and that will mean we’ll all pay in
higher utility bills. The Illinois EPA’s Doug Scott says it’ll be worth it if we can reduce
mercury exposure to people.


“We know what the issue is. It’s not a matter of us not understanding the connection
between mercury and what happens in fish, and then what happens in humans as a result
of that. We understand that. We know it, and we also know to a great degree what we
can do to try to correct the problem, and so, it’s a matter of just going out and doing it,
and so I’d like to think it’s something that can be done sooner rather than later.”


And since Great Lakes fish have elevated levels of mercury, sooner would be good.
It’ll take a while for the mercury already there to work its way out of the ecosystem and
return to more normal levels.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

A Cleaner Coal-Fired Power Plant

  • So far, coal-burning power plants have been a dominant source of electricity for the U.S. They've also been known to be bad for the environment. New technology makes coal a cleaner source of fuel, but some environmentalists have their doubts. (Photo by Lester Graham)

A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner
reports:

Transcript

A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be
built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s
largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient
and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities
were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build
new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Erin Toner reports:


Coal-fired power plants are blamed for contributing to air pollution and global warming and aggravating health problems such as asthma. In the 1970s, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution. But since many coal plants were built before the Clean Air Act, they’ve been exempt from pollution control updates.


So there are a lot of older, dirtier power plants out there. At the same time, demand for electricity is increasing. To meet demand, many utilities, including Ohio-based American Electric Power, are looking at building new plants, or adding on to their old ones. American Electric Power spokesperson Melissa McHenry says the company needs a new plant that will last at least 30 years.


“As we looked forward, you’re looking at increasingly stringent air quality regulations, so we wanted to ensure we would have a plant that would have improved environmental performance.”


And McHenry says the cleanest, and most efficient coal-burning process, is something practically brand-new to the industry. It’s called Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle, or IGCC. It converts coal to gas, and then removes pollutants from the gas before it’s burned. The process results in almost zero emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, nitrogen oxides, which cause smog, and mercury, which is toxic to people and animals. There’s also much less carbon dioxide pollution, which is believed to contribute to global warming. And gasification is said to be twice as efficient as traditional coal plants.


There are a couple of IGCC plants in the US, but they’re small – only about a quarter of the size of a traditional coal plant. American Electric Power’s IGCC plant would be the biggest one to date – a full-size plant that would serve the power needs of more than a million homes in the Midwest. American Electric Power Spokesperson Melissa McHenry says this plant be only the first of its kind.


“We’re stepping up to build the first one and we think there will be more as we need additional generation capacity. And we think other utilities, you know, obviously other utilities have announced plans to look at this since we have announced ours. The U.S. has significant reserves of coal available, and we think it’s very important that we are able to use this domestic fuel source in a more environmentally responsible way going forward.”


Most environmentalists agree that IGCC is a much improved way to make power. But they say it’s not the best way, since it still depends on a non-renewable energy source – coal. Environmental groups say relying on coal is not a long-term solution to growing energy needs. Although, the coal industry says there is at least a 200-year supply. Marty Kushler is with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He says utilities should consider ways to reduce the need to build new power plants.


“There are a number of other resource options available that can be achieved at a lower cost than building and fueling and operating a new power plant, such as energy efficiency. Energy efficiency can save electricity at a cost that is less than half the cost of building, fueling and operating a new power plant.”


But getting people to use less power isn’t that easy. Kushler says more states should implement power bill surcharges to fund programs to encourage the public to use more energy efficient appliances and cut electricity use.


But even with those kinds of programs, almost everyone agrees coal will be a part of the American energy mix for some time. And people in the energy industry say gasification is the future of coal power.


Jim Childress is with the Gasification Technologies Council. He says the only drawbacks right now are money. IGCC is about 20 percent more expensive than traditional coal power production. And he says there are a lot of bugs to work out in engineering one of these plants.


“The base technology is set. The question mark is based upon marrying that technology with about three, four, five major components and getting the darn thing to run right.”


Childress says the tough part is getting technology that’s working now on a small scale to work in a full-size coal plant.


American Electric Power says its Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle plant will cost 2 billion dollars, and should be online by 2010. The company is expected to announce a site for the new plant by summer.


For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.

Related Links

Power Company Switches to Natural Gas

The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:

Transcript

The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to
modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to
public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist
reports:


Elizabeth Dickinson didn’t get any kind of warning about air quality in her neighborhood. She
really didn’t need one. She says couldn’t avoid noticing the pollution in the air.


“A couple years ago, there was almost a week where the air quality in my neighborhood was so
bad that you literally couldn’t sleep. There was a burning back in my throat.”


Dickinson lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, not too far from one of the oldest coal burning plants
operated by Minnesota’s leading supplier of electricity, Xcel Energy.


She and many other people have been actively working to pressure the company to address the air
quality problems they believe are caused by Xcel’s older plants.


And in a rare move among power companies, Xcel Energy is doing something. In May 2002, the
company put forth a voluntary proposal to convert its two oldest coal burning plants to natural
gas. The oldest plant, Riverside, lies in northeast Minneapolis.


(sound of power plant)


Since it opened in 1911, the Riverside plant has changed very little when it comes to emitting
pollutants. It was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act of 1970 – which means the plant isn’t
subject to federal environmental mandates.


It didn’t have to install modern pollution control devices unless it upgraded the plant. And now,
under the Bush administration’s new rules, even upgrading it might not trigger the threshold that
would require it to reduce emissions.


“For a little bit over two years, one of the first things I was charged with was to look at all the
emissions in and around southeast Minneapolis and Riverside plant came back as a sore thumb
because of the glaring emissions.”


Justin Eibenholtz is the environmental coordinator for a Minneapolis neighborhood improvement
group. He says that’s why Excel’s decision to convert Riverside to natural gas is such a big deal.
Once it’s converted, the old plant will cut air pollutants by 99 percent. Mercury emissions will be
completely eliminated.


Neighborhood groups such as Eibenhotz’s and big environmental groups alike are praising
Excel’s decision. The Great Lakes Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club, Emily Green, says
the reduction in emissions will mean a better quality of life for residents who live in the Great
Lakes region. That’s because the mercury and other pollutants that were emitted from the plant
often ended up in the Great Lakes through a process called air deposition. That meant pollutants
got into the food chain and contaminated fish.


“The Great Lakes are like a giant bathtub with a very, very slow drain, so that what we put into
the Great Lakes stays there.”


Green says the pollutants don’t go away. They just end up contaminating the air and the water.


“We swim in them, we drink them, you know, the fish swim around in them, and so it’s very,
very important that we recognize, despite their size, how fragile the Great Lakes are.”


Besides polluting the lakes, the air pollution drifted for hundreds of miles, causing health
problems. The effects are already apparent. An independent report commissioned from the
Environmental Protection Agency says pollution from the oldest and dirtiest power plants kills
more than thirty thousand Americans each year – almost twice the number of people killed by
drunk driving and homicide combined.


While the natural gas conversion won’t reduce the level of mercury in the Great Lakes
immediately, it will mean it won’t add to the problem. It also means a more efficient use of a
fossil fuel.


Ron Ellsner is the project manager for Xcel’s proposal.


“The new combined cycles that we’re going to install are on the order of 30 percent more
efficient than what our current coal cycle is. They do that much better a job converting that
energy into fuel into electricity.”


It comes at a cost, though. Xcel estimates converting its Minneapolis and Saint Paul plants will
amount to one billion dollars. By Xcel’s estimate, it’ll be the most expensive power plant
conversion in the history of the United States, and the cost of the conversion will be passed on to
its customers.


That’s fine by Elizabeth Dickinson. She says she, and her neighbors, were paying for it in other
ways already, such as additional healthcare costs. Dickinson says the estimated extra 15 cents a
day for her power bill will be worth it.


“You know, these are the hidden costs of coal burning and they’re huge, and you know, they’re
usually left out of these equations and we’re saying they can’t be left out any longer, they just
can’t be, because it’s too high a cost for us as a society.”


Government regulators still have to approve the plan. Minnesota’s utilities commission is
holding a final round of public hearings before voting for or against Xcel’s proposal to convert to
natural gas.


If the conversion is approved, it will likely put pressure on other power companies in the Great
Lakes region to do the same.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Alquist.

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REACHING ASIAN IMMIGRANTS WITH FISH WARNINGS (Part I)

Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food, experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants. In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some cultures is especially difficult:

Transcript

Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a
way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food,
experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants.
In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating
contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some
cultures is especially difficult:


As the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam war, many people who
had been allies from Laos, Cambodia, and South Viet Nam found their way to the U.S. Some of
these people have always relied on fish for a large part of their diet.


After settling in the United States, they naturally turned to public lakes and rivers and began
fishing. They ran into a couple of problems. First, U.S. conservations laws put limits on the size
and how many fish they could catch, something they were not used to. Second, health officials
and conservation officials began to warn them about contamination. They told them chemical
pollutants could harm development in children and fetuses.


Josee Cung is with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She says many of the
Southeast Asian immigrants were skeptical. They thought the government was conspiring to get
them to buy ocean fish from stores rather than take free fish from the lakes and rivers. Cung says
the immigrants had never heard of such a thing as contaminants you couldn’t see.


“PCB, mercury, they don’t understand that. So, that’s the big challenge. So, there are real
cultural, but there are also real educational barriers.”


As she distributed fish advisories suggesting that certain fish had higher levels of contamination,
Cung found the Southeast Asian immigrants were astonished. She says they are a practical
people. They feel if that can’t see something wrong with the fish, it must be okay to eat.


“‘But they’re fat! They’re shiny! They are big!’ You know, ‘But they are good to eat!’ So, that’s
the kind of thing. It’s more prevalent than relying on the advisory to change behavior.”


The State of Minnesota had pamphlets of the advisories printed up in the various languages of the
immigrants and handed them out at every opportunity.


Pat McCann is a research scientist with the Department of Health. She’s worked closely with
Josee Cung to try to explain the fish contaminants issue.


“But we found, with the Southeast Asian populations, the written translations aren’t that effective
because that group seems to communicate more verbally. So, in order to do outreach with those
groups, we try to do presentations and reach community groups in that way.”


And so Minnesota took a more hands-on approach. Josee Cung says instead of handing out
pamphlets alone, they started meeting with leaders in the various Southeast Asian communities in
Minnesota. For example, the Hmong, who helped retrieve downed U.S. pilots during the war are
a people of clans. Cung found if they could demonstrate to clan leaders ways to trim away the fat
of fish where contaminants such as PCBs concentrate and show which fish have lower levels of
contaminants, the word would spread throughout the community. Cung also found that it was
important not just to talk to the anglers who got the fishing license – usually men.


“And we go in homes doing cooking. And really check out their kitchen and say ‘Oh, this is how
you should do.’ And it’s most effective because it’s the women that prepare. He hasn’t got a
clue. He bring the fish home and leave it to the women. And the women decide how to cook it.”


Minnesota’s outreach program with Southeast Asian cultures is pretty advanced. Not every
government in the Great Lakes basin is as active. In recent years, the International Joint
Commission, the body that monitors the U.S. and Canadian boundary waters treaties and
agreements, has been admonishing the states and provinces to do more.


Alan Hayton is with the Ontario Ministry of Environment. He says the governments have taken
the message to heart, but finding the money to do the job is always a problem.


“We do have some communications with some groups such as in Ontario, such as the Chinese
community, which is well-organized and receptive to the information that’s in the guide. But, it’s
difficult. We don’t. We do the best job we can given the resources that we have.”


The International Joint Commission warns that it’s important that the states and provinces work
harder to reach cultures, such as those from Southeast Asia, that rely heavily on fish for protein.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

NATIVE AMERICANS WEIGH CONTAMINATED FISH RISKS (Part II)

There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets. Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diet. But they’re concerned that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:

Transcript

There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets.
Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a
diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diets. But they’re concerned
that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the
risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:


A high rate of Native Americans suffer from diabetes and obesity. It’s commonly believed that
the European diet of processed grains, processed sugar, and fatty foods has contributed to the
health problems. So, some tribal members are looking at a traditional diet of fish and game and
the kinds of agriculture practiced by their forbearers. The idea is that traditional foods might be
more healthy for Native Americans.


But it’s become clear that some of those foods, particularly fish, are contaminated by pollutants.
PCBs and methyl mercury have been found in certain fish. Studies show those chemicals can
cause permanent health problems. Tribes have issued advisories, but some tribal leaders are
reluctant to discourage people from eating fish, even if it’s contaminated.


John Pursell works for the Minnesota Chippewa tribe. The tribe has issued advisories about
mercury in fish. But, Pursell says there’s a balance that has to be considered.


“We have to be careful that we aren’t advising people, tribal members, if we say ‘Don’t eat fish
of a certain size or from certain lakes,’ that we’re relatively certain that what they’re going to
replace that protein source with is not going to be more detrimental to their health. And that’s the
big concern.”


Pursell says, for example, his tribe is very concerned about dioxins. The tribe believes that
dioxins are responsible for a higher rate of cancer and other problems. And dioxins might be
present in the foods people in the tribe would eat instead of fish.


“But, we also know from the draft documents that the federal government has issued on dioxins,
that dioxins exist in fairly large quantities in such fatty foods as hamburger and cheeses. And of
course, these are foods that are found routinely in reservation commodity outlets.”


So, if it’s a matter of trading one kind of contamination for another, the logic goes, might as well
eat the healthier food, fish.


But the different tribes have different concerns and no one likes the idea of consuming
contaminated foods of any kind. So, there’s a lot of confusion about the best route to take to
dealing with the health problems among Native Americans.


Kory Groetchs is an environmental biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife
Commission. He says as interest in traditional foods builds, his agency is being asked for
answers.


“They have questions about industrial pollution and their impacts on traditional foods and, you
know, the balance between risks of consuming that food and the benefits of consuming it.”


Groetsch says the Commission is looking for funding to study ways to reduce the risk of
consuming contaminants. For example, one study tried to determine what size and where to catch
walleye with lower levels of mercury. He says more studies like that need to be conducted so
Native Americans can avoid the contaminants that might be present in traditional foods.


“And then definitely point out the situations where there is not concern so people can clear their
minds of these, if they have concerns, and they seem to, about industrial pollution such as methyl
mercury in fish, clear their mind of that and go back to a more traditional diet and eat in a more
natural, traditional way.”


Even those who are responsible for bringing the advisories on contaminants in fish to the
members of the tribe are hesitant. Maria Mabee is with the Seneca Nation in New York. She’s
an environmental activist and concerned about the effects of contaminants on health. At the same
time, she says there’s a limit to what she’ll recommend.


“You know, I can’t tell people to stop using fish for ceremonies. I just can’t do it. I won’t do it.
(laughs) I just, you know, I tell them about the risks, you know. I tell them what I know and I tell
them to make the best decisions for themselves.”


The tribes stress that the health benefits of fish should not be ignored. For many tribes, fish is a
staple. The question to answer they say is, if you don’t eat fish because of the risk of
contamination from pollution, will the food you eat instead be any more safe?


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

The COMPLEXITIES OF ISSUING FISH ADVISORIES (Part I)

  • Fish is healthy food, but contamination from pollution means people should limit the amount of inland lake and river fish they eat. Photo by Lester Graham.

There are three major questions often asked when considering the environmental health of a body of water. Can you drink the water? Can you swim in it? And… can you eat the fish? Often the answer to the last question is very complicated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the first report in a two-part series on the fish that ends up on your table:

Transcript

There are three major questions often asked when considering the
environmental health of a body of water. Can you drink the water? Can you
swim in it? And… can you eat the fish? Often the answer to the last
question is very complicated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham has the first report in a two-part series on the fish that ends up on
your table:


Mark Ford goes fishing almost every weekday. This day, he’s at a small
marina off of Lake Michigan. He’s carrying several rods and reels and a
couple of tackle boxes with him to an old dock…


Lester Graham: “Now, what do you fish for?”


Mark Ford: “Right now, whatever bites on the hook. Basically, I fish for bass,
catfish, walleye.”


This day, he’s just testing some new gear…


“Set my drag. Too loose.”


When Ford got his fishing license, he also got a guide telling him that the fish
he eats is contaminated. All inland lakes have some level of contamination
which could include pesticides, PCBs, and mercury.


Ford has a pretty good idea about what to do to reduce his exposure to the contaminants when he eats the fish..


“Yeah, first thing you want to do is cut off all excess fat to get away from a lot of the chemical
pollutants that’s not in the actual meat of the fish. That’s where most of the chemicals lie, in the fat. So, you cut that off and get to cookin’.”


Ford’s preparation is a good start. Trimming the fat will reduce exposure to PCBs and
similar compounds that are stored in fatty tissue. And just cooking the fish reduces some of the exposure to contaminants. But if a contaminant such as methyl mercury is present in the flesh of the fish, no amount of rinsing, boiling or frying will change that.


Unfortunately, many anglers are not as well informed as Mark Ford. A study in Canada
found a lot fishers don’t understand the contaminants or what to do about them. They judge
whether the fish is safe to eat by how well it fights on the line… by the color of the
flesh… or by the clearness of the eye. None of those things is an indicator of whether a fish is contaminated by toxic chemicals.


Alan Hayton is with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. He says how much fish are
contaminated depends on the body of water. A ban on PCBs in manufacturing
has helped, although there are still decades worth of the pollutant in some lake
sediments. Agricultural pesticide restrictions and bans have helped reduce
contaminants in some other lakes.


“Well, if you want – are fish getting better or worse? Certainly over the years,
when you look at the Great Lakes, there’s been a considerable decline in the level of
contaminants in fish. Many of the inland lakes, both in Ontario and elsewhere – not
just around the Great Lakes, but elsewhere – there’s mercury in those fish. Mercury
concentrations don’t appear to be changing. They seem to be quite stable.
So, we find that in quite a high proportion of the inland lakes there are some consumption
restrictions.”


Mercury remains a problem because as coal-fired power plants release mercury
into the air… it’s brought down into watersheds by rain. There the problem is
complicated in some areas by any number of factors, including some bacteria that transform
simple mercury into the more toxic methyl mercury.


So, some bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, have lower levels of some
pollutants, but some other contaminants are just as bad as ever. To complicate things
even more, some fish are more contaminated than others.


Faith Shottenfeld is with the New York State Department of Health.


“You know, it’s complicated because it’s going to vary from state to state, from body of
water to body of water and from fish species to fish species.”


Shottenfeld says that makes getting the message to anglers all the more difficult.
States are trying to figure out how to get the information to the people who eat
the fish, but there are very few general guidelines.


“So, I think that the best way to work your way through the complexities
is to really have a dialogue with somebody who understands the advisories and can
help you figure out what you need to do.”


But generally speaking, eating smaller fish, and limiting sport fish meals from local lakes to about once a week for men and once a month for women helps.


Angler Mark Ford says he’s not worried. He says to him, the health benefits of
fish offset the health risks of the contaminants.


“A month, I’d say I eat about twelve to 15 pounds of fish. I eat a lot of fish.
I like fish. Fish is healthy for you, too. It’s low in cholesterol if you cut the fat away from
it. It’s good brain food. That’s scientifically proven. And, if you prepare it
right, it tastes good!”


And Ford says he’s healthy. But experts indicate it’s hard to say what long-term
exposure to the contaminants in sport fish from area lakes will mean to human
health. They caution that children and women of child-bearing age should severely
restrict their intake of sport fish because the contaminants can damage the
development of fetuses and children.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM TAINTED FISH (Part II)

The people most at risk from contaminants in fish often don’t know it. Different chemicals found in fish from many inland lakes, including the Great Lakes, can be harmful to human development. State governments issue fish consumption advisories that recommend limiting eating such fish. In the second of a two-part series on contaminants in fish… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that not everyone learns of the advisories:

Transcript

The people most at risk from contaminants in fish often don’t know it.
Different chemicals found in fish from many inland lakes, including the
Great Lakes, can be harmful to human development. State governments
issue fish consumption advisories that recommend limiting
eating such fish. In the second of a two part series on contaminants in
fish… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that not
everyone learns of the advisories:


Horace Phillips likes to fish. He can often be found casting a line into a
lagoon off of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s south side. He says he and a lot of
his fishing buddies know about the fish consumption advisories, but he doesn’t
think he eats enough to matter…


“Sure, it’s always good to know, but, as I say, I’m not consuming that much fish.”


That’s because Phillips gives away much of the fish he catches. Like a lot of
anglers, he enjoys the sport, and shares what he catches with friends and
relatives. He doesn’t remember getting a fishing guide when he got his fishing
license, but the retailer was supposed to give him one. It not only outlines limits
on the amount of fish an angler can take, but also includes recommendations
on how much fish he should eat in a given month.


But Phillips says he thinks he learned about fish contaminants from the
newspaper. He never really thought about passing on the warning to people
with whom he shares his fish.


“I suppose the same literature that’s available to me is also available to them.”


But often the people who prepare the fish or who eat the fish don’t have a
clue that there’s anything wrong with the fish.


We should note here that fish is nutritious. It’s a good low-fat, lower calorie
source of protein. Eating fish instead of higher-fat and cholesterol laden foods
is believed to help lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure,
diabetes and several forms of cancer. Pretty good food, fish.


But some fish contain PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls – believed to cause
cancer. Chlordane, a pesticide, has been found in fish. And methyl mercury is
found in some fish. These chemicals can cause serious health problems,
especially for children and fetuses. They can disrupt the systems that
coordinate the nervous system, the brain, and the reproductive system.


Studies have shown women store some of these chemicals in their
fat tissue until they become pregnant. Then, those chemicals are passed
to the child they’re carrying. Studies have indicated that of mothers
who ate three or more fish meals a month, those with the highest exposure
gave birth to children with health problems.


They had significant delays in neuromuscular and neurological development.
Those children continued to show short-term memory problems at age four… and
significant reduction in IQ and academic skills at age seven.


Barbara Knuth is a professor of Natural Resource Policy and Management at
Cornell University. She says given the health concerns with eating too much contaminated fish, the information about restrictions needs to be more widely distributed.


“Where we need to focus effort now is not so much on the angler, but we need to be focusing
on the people with whom they’re sharing those fish, the women, their wives, mothers
of childbearing age, women of childbearing age, children, because that’s where we now know,
scientists now know – who are studying this – where the real health effects are.”


But where to start? After all, the fish might come from a friend… it might be at the deli… it could be on the plate at a local restaurant. There are no rules requiring a notice that fish is from a lake, or the ocean, or farm-raised. So, how do you get the word out?


One federal agency is working to get the information to those at highest risk by going through their doctor. Steve Blackwell is with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


“We’ve taken on trying to reach health care providers that are serving the target
population, the most at-risk population of women, children, pregnant women and reach those
groups such as OBGYNs, family physicians, pediatricians with this information to help raise
awareness within that group that serves the at-risk population to try and make sure that they’re receiving the message and they’re not telling their patients something different from what the patients may be hearing outside that realm.”


Whether the doctors are actually passing on the concerns about contaminated fish is a
whole other question. But assuming they are, there’s still another concern. Many of the women who are most at risk might not see a doctor until the day the baby is due. Poor women… the very same women who might rely on fishing for a good part of their diet… might not be told
about the risks.


And so their children are born into poverty… and the added burden of chemicals that can hurt their development. Blackwell says reaching those women is something the federal government cannot do alone.


“You want to reach those people through local leaders, through churches, through
institutions that aren’t medical.”


And that’s best done, Blackwell says, by local government, not the federal
government. But state budgets are strapped. And, in some cases, states are
reluctant to raise awareness of an issue that they really can’t fix. A source within
a state agency told us that an higher-ranking official indicated to
him that he didn’t want to assign a full-time person to work on fish contamination
awareness alone because it would send the wrong political message. Another state stopped publishing fish consumption advisories as a budget cutting move… that is… until local reporters exposed that particular budget cut.


In short, warning pregnant women and women of childbearing age about the dangers of
eating too much contaminated fish and how that could damage their children’s
intellectual and physical development has not gotten enough attention yet to become a
political priority.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.