Fish Advisory Documents Released

States, tribes and territories issued 3,221 fish advisories in 2004, according to data announced on Sept. 15 by EPA. The advisories alert residents to the potential health risks of eating contaminated fish caught locally in lakes, rivers and coastal waters. They do not pertain to commercial fishing.

The latest number is an increase from the 2003 reporting period, when 3,089 advisories were issued. The increase represents more monitoring activity by states, officials said. All 50 states have fish-advisory programs, although two -- Wyoming and Alaska -- issued no advisories.

While the 2004 National Listing of Fish Advisories database reflects an increase in advisories, the database also shows that the number of safe-eating guidelines issued by states continues to rise rapidly as states expand their monitoring activities. Safe-eating guidelines inform the public that fish from specific bodies of water or species of fish are safe to eat.

Each state sets its own criteria and decides which bodies of water to monitor. Some measurements involved coastal waters, rivers or lakes or a combination of the three. Additionally, states do not always monitor the same bodies of water from year to year. Fish advisories are voluntary state recommendations and are not governed by federal regulations.

Frequently, when a fish advisory is issued it is because of pollutants that have lingered in the environment for long periods, sometimes decades, even though they are no longer used or their use has been significantly curtailed. These pollutants include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlordane, DDT, mercury and dioxin.

The consumption advisories vary but may include recommendations to limit or avoid eating certain fish species caught from specific bodies of water. Advisories may be issued for the general population or for such groups as pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children

The 2004 National Listing of Fish Advisories can be accessed at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advisories.

Information about advisories in various states can be found at http://epa.gov/waterscience/fish/states.htm.

Additional reference materials are available at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/promo.html.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups led by Oceana and the Mercury Policy Project released on the same day the results of a 22-state mercury testing project, finding that store-bought swordfish and tuna contain levels of mercury that the federal government has determined may be hazardous to human health, particularly children.

The results released in Fair Warning: Why Grocery Stores Should Tell Parents About Mercury in Fish were more comprehensive than any recently released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and included samples purchased at popular supermarket chains, the groups claim. Swordfish and tuna samples bought in grocery stores in 22 states were tested at the University of North Carolina's Environmental Quality Institute between July 7 and August 11.

An average mercury concentration of 1.1 parts per million (ppm) was found in the 24 swordfish samples tested. That level exceeds the FDA Action Level of 1 ppm for commercial fish, which is the amount at which the agency can take legal action to remove a product from the market, the groups said. Two samples, including one from Maine and one from Rhode Island, contained more than 2 ppm, twice the FDA Action Level. The testing results also suggest that a typical shopper buying swordfish in a grocery store has a 50 percent chance of buying a swordfish steak with mercury levels considered unsafe by the FDA.

Mercury concentrations in 31 samples of fresh or frozen tuna steaks averaged 0.33 ppm, a level comparable to that of canned albacore tuna, a fish specifically targeted for limited consumption by women of childbearing age and children in the 2004 joint advisory from the FDA and EPA. The second page of the same advisory has similar consumption advice for tuna steaks, the groups said.

"The results clearly demonstrate the need for signs in our supermarkets to communicate the FDA advice because people are unknowingly purchasing these high mercury fish, and women of childbearing age and children may be eating them in spite of the FDA's warning," said Jackie Savitz, director of Oceana's Seafood Contamination Campaign. "Americans have a right to know what's in their food, and posting warning signs in grocery stores where these fish are sold is a simple, common-sense solution that fulfills that right."

In addition, the groups called on the FDA to improve its testing program. The Fair Warning project analyzed and reported on six times more swordfish than the FDA has in the past five years combined, and eight times more tuna steaks than the FDA has in the past eight years, according to the FDA's database, the groups said.

"Pregnant women and parents of young children need point-of- sale warnings to make informed choices about the fish they purchase," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "Based on our test results a 44-pound child eating six ounces of tuna weekly would be four times over the EPA's reference dose, and a 120-pound woman eating just six ounces of tuna weekly would be eating one and one-half times EPA's reference dose."

The report, Fair Warning: Why Grocery Stores Should Tell Parents About Mercury in Fish, is available on the Web at http://www.mercurypolicy.org/new/documents/FairWarningReportfinal.pdf.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers, called the report misleading.

The report's demands for warning labels on supermarket fish are based on the fact that some samples contained mercury in levels exceeding the EPA's "reference dose." But this dose has a safety factor of 1,000 percent built in, the group said.

At a July 2003 EPA/FDA meeting, Michael Bolger (chief of the FDA's Contamination Branch) said that "92 percent of women of child-bearing age already consume below the mercury reference dose, while the top 8 percent still have a safety margin of about eight-fold." The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the CDC, showed that absolutely no American men, women, or children had mercury levels near the established "benchmark" danger level, the group said.

In 1994, shortly after the FDA established its mercury "action level" of 1 part-per-million in fish, the agency wrote that this level "was established to limit consumers' methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects ... and is considerably lower than levels of methyl mercury in fish that have caused illness." The group said that the World Health Organization has since concluded: "The general population does not face a significant health risk from methyl mercury."

"Even if the mercury in a fish was double the FDA's action level, it would mean that Americans' health is still protected by a 500-percent buffer," said Center for Consumer Freedom Director of Research David Martosko. "When green groups raise red flags over what amounts to a giant red-herring, we have to wonder if they're at all familiar with the science. These campaigns have more to do with creating fear and raising money than protecting the public's health."

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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