Many fish pose risk at table Group notes toxins in home catches

December 03, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A warning to fishermen: Eating your catch from some waterways could be more hazardous to your health than the federal government would have you believe.

So says a national report released yesterday by the Environmental Defense Fund, a group based in New York.

The findings relate to the following Maryland waters: Baltimore Harbor, Back River, Lake Roland and the Potomac River in Western Maryland.

The report accuses the Environmental Protection Agency of misleading the public about the extent of fish contamination from toxic chemicals.

"EPA is trying to gloss over a real public health problem," said Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, senior toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

"All around this country, fish are laced with PCBs, dioxin, mercury, pesticides and other dangerous toxins," said Dr. Silbergeld, a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

The EPA recently reported that eating fish caught from 46 places, including Baltimore Harbor, could slightly increase a person's risk of getting cancer if the fish were eaten regularly for a lifetime.

Those affected are chiefly recreational fishermen and low-income people who fish to provide food for their families, the EPA said. Restaurants and stores do not carry fish from the 46 waterways.

But the Environmental Defense Fund says the EPA has downplayed both the number of hot spots around the country and the extent of health risks, especially to young children and pregnant women.

The EPA report lists Baltimore Harbor as the only hot spot. But fund officials point out that other Maryland waters long known for contamination were not mentioned.

The fund study notes that 46 states and the District of Columbia have issued nearly 4,000 bans or warnings against eating fish from certain waters.

"People should take those advisories seriously," said Dr. Silbergeld. "If anything, they probably underestimate the actual risk."

In Maryland, for instance, fishermen have been warned since 1985 to limit their consumption of channel catfish and American eels from Back River and Baltimore Harbor because of chlordane contamina- tion.

A similar warning is in effect for carp and black crappie in Lake Roland in Baltimore County, also because of chlordane.

Once widely used to control termites, the pesticide chlordane has been banned since 1988. It has caused liver cancer, genetic damage and reproductive problems in laboratory animals.

PCBs in harbor

The EPA study included Baltimore Harbor on its list of 46 unsafe waterways because of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, found in white perch there.

Once widely used to lubricate electrical equipment, PCBs have been banned since 1979. They cause skin rashes and liver damage in humans, and they also have caused liver cancer in rats and mice.

Maryland officials never have found what they consider to be unsafe levels of PCBs in fish in the harbor or anywhere else in state waters, said Mary Jo Garreis, chief of water standards for the state Department of the Environment.

She said the agency is studying the EPA report.

Twenty-two states, including Maryland, have issued health warnings about dioxin contamination of fish.

Don't eat that catfish

The hot spot here is a 40-mile stretch of the Potomac River in Western Maryland.

Because of dioxin contamination from a Westvaco Corp. paper mill in Luke, fishermen are warned not to eat bottom-feeding fish, such as catfish and bullheads. They are also told to limit their consumption of sunfish.

Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of the Environment lifted its warning against eating bass and most other surface-feeding sport fish from the upper Potomac after finding that dioxin levels in those species had dropped considerably in the past two years.

Westvaco has spent $15 million to sharply reduce dioxin discharges from its Luke mill.

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