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