Frank Beacham: Poisoned Fish

While vacationing in Florida recently, I picked up a copy of the New York Times and was startled by a small article buried inside. It was a brief report of a speech in nearby Tampa by Carol M. Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The topic was recreational fishing. The news was chilling."Here in Florida, every inch of coastline carries a warning, plus 80 inland water bodies and the entire Everglades," Browner told the American Fisheries Society. That warning, she said, is that certain species of fish are contaminated and may not be safe for humans to eat.Though it's obvious that the environmental decline continues unabated, I was nevertheless stunned to hear that we've reached the point where every inch of the Florida coastline and a good chunk of its inland lakes and rivers contains one or more species of contaminated fish. At first I thought it was some kind of mistake. I asked several friends who take their fishing very seriously whether they had heard of such a thing. Each responded negatively and expressed the same level of surprise that I had. So I checked some Florida newspapers. Outside of a couple of local newspapers in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, no other Florida paper even picked up the story. How could this be? If this was old news, I could understand the lack of coverage. But I could not find a single man or woman in this beach community who'd even heard of anything about contaminated fish warnings.When I finally got a copy of Ms. Browner's speech, the worst was confirmed. In fact, it's not just Florida. Forty percent of rivers, lakes and streams in the United States are now unsafe for fishing or swimming. Nearly every state in the union has been recently forced to issue warnings advising the public to avoid or limit eating fish they catch in local lakes and rivers. "Across the country our fish are contaminated with mercury, with PCB's, with the pesticide chlordane, with dioxin and DDT and dozens of other chemicals," Ms. Browner said. "Warnings of chemical contamination cover four percent of all our river miles; 14 percent of our total lake acreage, including all the Great Lakes; and a large portion of the nation's coastal areas -- a 20 percent increase over last year."In thousands of rivers, lakes, and beaches across the country, pollution has taken the joy out of fishing, Ms. Browner said. Not to mention the fact, she added, that the public health is at risk."Pregnant women and children are particularly susceptible," she said. "And so are those segments of the population that eat large quantities of fish -- Native Americans, Asian Americans and Americans who depend on fishing to put food on the table for their families."The advisories, most of which apply to non-commercial fishing, cover 30 chemical pollutants and multiple fish species. The top contaminants are mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a now-banned electrical insulator). The largest source of mercury contamination is air deposition, particularly from power plants burning coal, incineration of wastes that contain mercury and industrial facilities that use mercury in their processes. Once released into the atmosphere, mercury can be deposited in waters around a facility or transported over long distances and deposited in water directly or through runoff. Once in the water, the mercury is converted to methylmercury. Methylmercury is highly toxic and accumulates in fish flesh.So if all these fish contamination warnings are real (and they are), why do so few people who fish not know about them? Probably because the states generally choose to issue the warnings through their fish licensing offices. That means when you go to buy a fishing license you might see a notice posted about contaminated fish somewhere on a wall.Since such a hit and miss warning system is almost laughably ineffective, the EPA has recently created a national computer database that allows anyone to check for all state warnings posted for any body of water. The database is available at no charge on five PC-compatible computer disks or can be downloaded from the EPA's Internet web site (http://www.epa.gov/owow/fishadvice/facts.html).Included in the database is information of the types of advisories (such as restricted consumption or fishing bans), the species of fish and the chemicals that are included in each advisory, segments of the population that are affected, the geographic location of each advisory, dates of issue and the state government agency contact and a phone number. "You can draw a map of the country, a state or a region and all the advisories designated in your search parameters will show up on the map. Then you just clip the water body you are interested in and up comes the advice for that water body," said Jeffrey Bigler of the EPA's Fish Contamination Program.Soon, says Bigler, the PC-compatible database will not require downloading but will work interactively with any type of computer directly on-line with the latest updates on contamination conditions available.Now the first real information system is available that allows American citizens to easily investigate the degree of chemical contamination in their local waters. But, ironically, congressional Republicans are hard at work trying to stop even the simple monitoring of water quality. It's a sad day when we have to fight our own representatives to get even the most basic information about the purity of our food chain.(For free computer disks of the fish contamination database, call or write EPA's National Center for Environmental Publications and Information, 11029 Kenwood Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45242. Tel: 513-489-8190. For information about fish consumption advisories, contact the EPA's Jeffrey Bigler at 202-260-1305.)

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