Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

A lot of Mercury in a lot of Fish

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just released results of an 11-year study showing, for the first time ever, the average concentrations of 268 “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic” (PBT) chemicals in American lake fish.

Of the 268 chemicals, there were two the agency found in every sample — mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Considering the health concerns related to mercury and health issues linked to PCBs, these are pretty disturbing results. Even worse, almost half of the fish (48.8%) had concentrations of mercury ABOVE what the EPA considers safe for people to consume.

The results of the EPA’s study come nearly ten years after Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its own study titled “Mercury Falling,” which called attention to pollution from coal-burning power plants, the single largest source of mercury pollution and source of 22.5% of America’s electric power.

Renee Sharp, EWG Senior Scientist and Vice President for California, said the EPA’s study is further evidence of the need to become independent of coal and to face the realities of the extent of water contamination in the United States: “Many people who eat fish from these lakes or take their families to them on vacation do it under the presumption they’re pristine and healthy. This study shows that unfortunately, that’s not always the case; pollution from these plants seems to be everywhere.”

The EPA study was designed so that the samples, taken from 500 lakes and reservoirs across the lower 48 states, would be representative of all American lakes. Two types of fish were tested per site: predators such as bass and trout and bottom-dwellers such as catfish and bullhead.  The agency says its sample of 486 predator fish is representative of the situation in an estimated 76,559 lakes; the sample of 395 bottom-dwelling fish is representative of an estimated 46,190 lakes.

Contamination of the fish calls for concern over the safety of the water. The EPA estimates that inland lakes and reservoirs are the source of 70% of the country’s drinking water. These bodies support multi-billion-dollar fishing and tourist industries, not to mention habitats for a diversity of species – common and endangered alike.

Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, said the new findings reinforce EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s “strong call” for protecting these bodies of water and the people they affect.

The “snapshot” of data from the study provides a starting point for measuring the success of efforts to clean up the nation’s fresh water bodies. The data also allows the EPA to focus on areas of particular concern for chemical pollution, particularly mercury and PCBs.

Once mercury makes its way into a body of water, it is easily converted into methylmercury, a powerful toxin that can harm brain and nervous system functioning in both children and adults and seriously impair the neurological health of developing fetuses. In a 2005 biomonitoring study, EWG found mercury in all persons tested – 10 newborns and 3 adults.

The EPA’s lake fish tissue study is available online. Also, read EPA’s advisories on fish consumption to be sure you are feeding yourself and your family fish that are free of neurotoxins and other chemical pollutants.

Travis Mitchell contributed to this piece.

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