Weighing the safety of bay seafood


December 12, 1992|By TOM HORTON

I recently watched the host of an outdoor and cooking show ("The Southern Sportsman") happily preparing Scotch eggs, a delicious concoction of which one bite contains enough fat and cholesterol to stop a bull's heart.

He had just finished an equally blithe indictment of fish from most East Coast rivers as unsafe to eat because of "all the toxic chemicals in the environment nowadays."

No doubt about it, words like "toxic," "chemical" and "carcinogen" often have more power to frighten us, even at levels of parts-per-billion, than do much grosser health threats like smoking, or riding motorcycles helmet-less.

"Is it safe to eat (fill in your favorite bay seafood)?" It is one of thequestions I get asked most, and for which a clear-cut answer is most difficult.

On the one hand, name any of a long list of toxic metals, pesticidesor industrial organic compounds, and at least traces of it can probably be found throughout much of the bay, and in the tissues of crabs and oysters and finfish.

For many of these toxics there are no safety guidelines, and no one knows much about their combined, or "synergistic," effects, even if individually they occur in what appear to be safe levels.

The bottom line is that if you wish to be concerned, you can find legitimate grounds for concern.

On the other hand, to date we have no scientific evidence linking the toxics to human health problems, or even to the great bulk of the environmental declines among plants and creatures in the bay.

And two decades of regular monitoring by the state for 18 different toxics in bay oysters shows no upward trends, many going down, and none at levels considered dangerous under current health standards.

The bottom line is if you love to eat bay seafood, you can find plenty of grounds for confidence.

Still, people are confused about the safety of seafood these days. It is not just toxic chemicals. Maryland's high cancer mortality, rampant oyster diseases, recent reports of problems with the nation's seafood inspection system, even the AIDS epidemic -- all play into the equation.

"I think the public confidence now in the health of bay seafood is shaken -- not broken . . . but a lot of people are on the fence," says Bill Sieling, chief of Maryland Seafood Marketing.

Sieling says state officials a few years ago were themselves shaken when consumers began erroneously linking the bay's oyster diseases to the AIDS virus. "First we laughed, but finally we had to confront it," he said. The diseases, MSX and dermo, are not transmittable to humans, and have no connection to AIDS.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Sieling, whose job is to promote Maryland seafood, endorses bay fish and shellfish as safe and healthy, and cites ongoing efforts by the industry to upgrade standards further.

But what do experts who work closely with the bay's environment, who are most acutely aware of its pollution problems think -- and eat?

Following are their conclusions -- mostly personal, and not, many stressed, to be taken as representing official viewpoints.

You might think it a scandal that Robert Perciasepe, secretary of Maryland's Department of the Environment, won't eat anything out of the bay.

But wait, he's excused. "I'm allergic to seafood. But I feed it unabashedly to my family." He feels the Chesapeake, because of all the concern about restoring it, "has become one of the most monitored bodies of water in the world.

"The bay's been lucky," he says, in that there were never major sources here of PCBs, mercury, or some other toxics that were dumped for decades into other U.S. waters.

"I eat crabs and oysters, no problem," says Ian Hartwell, a toxicologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "Of course, I also smoke," he jokes. "But in all the testing that's done, I haven't seen any levels of [toxics] above FDA [Food and Drug Administration] action levels."

Robert Huggett, a toxicologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has been studying the bay's chemistry longer than most anyone. He has found evidence of tumors and fin rot in fish from Norfolk's Elizabeth River. It hasn't stopped him from eating anything he wants from the bay, although "I like to make sure I know where it comes from."

Huggett says he worries more these days about the increasing amount of seafood we are importing, such as shrimp from Asia, which he says is raised in rice paddies where pesticides banned long ago in the U.S. are still common. "I don't know there's a problem, but it concerns me," he says.

If you are the cautious type, he'd recommend the following as seafood to be most cautious about: carnivorous fish, which can "bioaccumulate." or concentrate toxins many times over levels in the species on which they feed; crab "mustard,"which is the crab equivalent of human liver, and where crabs concentrate toxic compounds. Eat crab muscle, or white meat, instead.

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