Report finds Bay contaminants widespread, severe in spots

Environmental, health advocates call for legislative action

  • Great blue heron takes wing on the Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam. New federal report details widespread bay contamination and impacts seen in fish, wildlife.
Great blue heron takes wing on the Susquehanna River below Conowingo… (Kenneth K. Lam )
January 18, 2013|Tim Wheeler

A new federal report finds toxic contamination remains widespread in the Chesapeake Bay, with severe impacts in some places, which health and environmental advocates say lends support to their push in Annapolis for legislative action on pesticides and other hazardous chemicals.

The 184-page report, recently posted on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay program, notes that nearly three-fourths of the bay's tidal waters are "fully or partially impaired" by toxic chemicals, with contamination severe enough in some areas that people are warned to limit how many fish they eat from there. 

The chemicals tainting fish are mainly mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.  Once widely used in electrical equipment, PCBs were banned years ago over health concerns, but residues linger and continue to show up in fish tissue. 

"They may be coming down - I can't say they're not - but we know they're not coming down quickly," said Greg Allen, an EPA scientist and the lead author of the interagency report, which was produced in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Contamination is severe in a handful of "hot spots" around the bay, including Baltimore's harbor, largely a legacy of past industrial and shipping activity. Some cleanup has taken place in one of the worst spots, the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Va., Allen said, but much remains.

The report also notes there are other widely dispersed contaminants found around the bay that pose disputed or unknown threats to wildlife and people, such as the agricultural herbicide atrazine, pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

"Since 2000, new concerns, such as intersex conditions in fish, have arisen," the report says. "Although the causes are undetermined, there is increasing evidence that contaminant exposures may play a role."

A group of health and environmental advocates seized on the report to say it demonstrates the need for more information about pesticide use in Maryland. In a statement released Thursday, they pointed to its finding that researchers don't know enough about the use of some pesticides to determine the extent and severity of their contamination.

“Our current lack of information about pesticide usage results in dangerous data gaps,” said  Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “Environmental scientists and public health professionals need to know what, when and where pesticides are being used in order to identify which pesticides have adverse impacts on fish, wildlife, the ecosystem, and the health of the public.”

Pesticide reporting is one of the environmental community's top legislative priorities. A bill is planned that would require pesticide applicators and sellers of certain pesticides to report data on sales and use that they are already required to maintain. The bill would require the information be compiled and made available to health and environmental officials.

A group of health advocates released their own report on Thursday saying children and pregnant mothers are especially vulnerable to even tiny doses of pesticides and other chemicals.  The Maryland Environmental Health Network called for state action to increase data collection and research into the use and potential effects of pesticides and other chemicals.

"Science is telling us in some cases there is no safe level of exposure," Rebecca Ruggles, coordinator of the network, said during a briefing in Annapolis.

Several lawmakers attended the briefing and vowed to pursue legislation they said would help shield children from some of the environmental threats listed in the report.  Among them was Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat, who plans to seek a ban on the fire retardant Tris, widely found in furniture and in dust in homes, which studies have linked to a variety of health problems.

To read the report, go here.

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