Public Release: 

University Of Georgia Scientist Says States Should Adopt Uniform Standards To Alert Public To Fish Consumption Restrictions

University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- Is it safe to eat fish from U.S. rivers and lakes? In truth, it's difficult to know for sure. Health experts and scientists don't agree about the long-term health risks of eating contaminated fish or how best to alert anglers about the risks without causing alarm.

The use of two different systems now used to issue fish consumption advisories is so complicated and inconsistent from state to state as to be nearly useless, according to a University of Georgia scientist. He's recommending that states adopt a single set of guidelines that could assure anglers that they won't catch anything unwanted from their catch of the day.

"The bad news is that we live in a world contaminated with chemical compounds," said Dr. Bob Reinert, an aquatic toxicologist in UGA's Warnell School of Forest Resources. "The good news is that effective fish consumption guidelines can help people minimize their exposure."

Lakes and rivers are "sinks" for chemical compounds of all kinds. Fish filter and concentrate contaminants in their tissues. Most are stored in fat tissue and can be trimmed away before cooking. Grilling or broiling on a rack allows as much as 50 percent of the fats to drip away. But heavy metals like mercury and cadmium are stored in the muscle and can't be removed. That's why pollution -- and easy-to-follow guidelines about how to limit exposure -- is so important to anglers.

Reinert presented findings of a study, "A Review of the Basic Principles and Assumptions Used to Issue Fish Consumption Advisories," at the American Fisheries Society Symposium last year. He and co-authors at Cornell University, Michigan State University and the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the scientific standards are different and only a few states have so far adopted comprehensive guidelines to help the public understand and minimize the risks.

Until the late 1980s, most states used fish consumption advisories written years ago by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- guidelines designed to warn consumers about contaminated fish shipped across state lines and sold primarily through grocery stores. The newer "risk assessment" system recommended by the EPA targets sport and subsistence anglers who eat fish from local waters and who, Reinert said, may be at higher risk since they eat more fish, often from the same location.

"The two systems are based on a completely different set of criteria and provide contrasting estimates of what's safe to eat," said Reinert. "The FDA advisories balance economic impacts [of losses to the fishing industry] with public health risks, while the EPA advisories are based on health risks alone. To add to the confusion, some states use combinations or variations of the two systems."

The number of fish consumption advisories issued by states increased dramatically in recent years, mostly due to improved analytical techniques that can detect trace amounts of contaminants in the water. Some 48 states issued advisories of some kind in the past two years after sampling showed evidence of PCBs, chlordane, mercury, dioxins or other toxins. Reinert said the ability of researchers to detect these substances has increased a millionfold in the past decade.

The new EPA system isn't without detractors. Some in industry reportedly complain that it's bad for business. Particularly controversial among scientists is the accuracy of the EPA cancer risk assessments, which are based on a 70-year lifetime consumption of fish.

"This issue illustrates the immense complexity of coordinating programs as controversial as health advisories across state and agency boundaries," said Reinert.

Georgia in 1995 became the first southeastern state to adopt a version of the new EPA guidelines after Dr. Randy Manning of the state's Environmental Protection Division formed a committee to review the situation. The members developed the current system which calls for regular sampling and scanning for 45 chemicals. Only four -- PCBs, mercury, DDT and chlordane-- are found in fish in levels that would restrict consumption.

The committee drew up a simplified set of guidelines based on EPA's recommendations. The guidelines are printed in a small green called Guidelines for Eating Fish from Georgia Waters. It is available at bait shops, marinas, state wildlife offices and where fishing licenses are sold. The book explains health risks, gives tips about how to trim and cook fish to reduce contaminants and lists fish consumption guidelines for 26 lakes and 31 rivers in Georgia.

Reinert and Manning have traveled the state for the past 18 months, explaining the new guidelines to anglers, lake homeowners and state enforcement rangers. The scientists said most people seem to prefer the guidelines over an enforcement approach.

"The guidelines remind people that water quality is an important concern that affects us all," said Reinert. "We hope the information will channel peoples' concerns into actions that result in stricter water quality regulations."

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