When conducting “stakeholder” meetings two years ago to identify top toxic pollution issues for the Chesapeake, Bay Program officials hit upon something they had never dealt with: fish advisories.
At the time, 21 watershed sites had warnings about eating locally caught fish.
“The stakeholders said that was not acceptable, and the fish should be safe for consumption by everybody,” said Kelly Shenk, nonpoint source coordinator with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
That caused a sharp change in policy. Historically, the Bay Program focused on the ecological health of the Chesapeake, not human health. But the two issues merge with fish consumption advisories.
While studies have long shown that severe toxic problems exist in only a few areas around the Bay, research has also shown that chemical contaminants are present in low concentrations throughout the region.
The low levels do not cause any obvious problems — such as fish kills — but they can have subtle effects, such as affecting reproduction. Some also build up in the food chain, posing a threats to humans, especially children and childbearing-age women, who eat predator fish.
“The fact that we see chemicals bioaccumulating in the fish is a warning that something is not right in the Bay,” Shenk said.
So, when the Executive Council approved a new Toxics 2000 Strategy, it set a goal of ensuring that “finfish and shellfish are safe to eat by all Bay watershed residents and visitors.”
The strategy specifically calls for developing plans to reduce or eliminate contaminants responsible for fish consumption advisories, evaluating fish tissue monitoring programs to see if they provide adequate information, reviewing outreach efforts to inform the public about advisories and identifying populations that may be at higher risks from fish consumption.
On paper, it would appear that things have worsened since the Executive Council signed off on the toxics strategy. Last year, Maryland added fish advisories for 14 tidal waterbodies around the state. Pennsylvania issued a statewide fish consumption advisory, as well as 37 site-specific advisories in the Susquehanna basin, for mercury.
But the changes don’t mean pollution is going up. Rather, they reflect new information, both about levels of contamination in fish, and about human fish consumption.
Maryland increased its number of advisories in response to a change by the EPA, which more than doubled its estimate of how much fish people eat.
Previously, it had said that average fish consumption was 7.8 ounces a month. Last year, it boosted that figure to 18.8 ounces a month.
While fish are not getting more toxic, the change means that people might be getting a bigger dose of whatever chemicals are in them, at least by the EPA’s figures. Hence the Maryland change.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania last year issued an advisory for all state rivers and streams, cautioning against eating more than a single half-pound fish meal a week because of possible mercury contamination. That decision, reflected revised EPA concerns about possible mercury contamination in waterways. (Maryland has also adopted mercury advisories for all of its lakes and reservoirs.)
“Basically, what we’re finding is when we look, contaminants are there,” said Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Which means we need to look.”
But states don’t actually have to look.
The Clean Water Act does not require states to monitor fish tissue for harmful chemicals, although all of the Bay states do have programs.
For the most part, states are on their own when it comes to setting fish advisories. While the EPA offers guidelines, they are often so vague that different states can look at the same fish and come up with totally different conclusions about whether it is “safe” to eat.
“Depending on your assumptions, one state can derive a standard or guideline that is 100 times, 1,000 times, or even 10,000 times more stringent than the other,” said Khizer Wasti, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Health Hazards Control. “It is all theoretical.”
For example, when Virginia scientists make their risk assessments for fish consumption advisories, they assume people will only eat fish from a particular area for 12.5 years, based on research that shows few people live in an area longer than that.
Maryland assumes people eat fish from the same area for 30 years.
Pennsylvania doesn’t do any of its own risk assessments. Instead, it follows an agreement among Great Lakes states for PCBs, and EPA guidance for mercury, which assumes consumption over a 70-year lifetime. (It follows Food and Drug Administration recommendations for other contaminants.)
Further, some states may assume that one additional cancer among a million people is an acceptable risk; others may think 1 in 100,000, or even 1 in 10,000, is acceptable. Other assumptions, such as how often people actually eat fish, and how it is prepared — levels of some chemicals such as PCBs can be reduced when fat is removed — may also affect the outcome of a risk assessment.
Who eats the fish is also important. Generally, advisories are aimed to protect women of childbearing age and children, who are most susceptible to harm from contaminants. At the same time, many officials worry that issuing warnings about low health risks can scare people into not eating a food that research has shown to be particularly healthy — and actually helpful in preventing some types of cancer, as well as heart disease.
“Regardless of contaminants or no contaminants, fish are still a healthy source of protein,” said Joe Beaman, who oversees fish advisories for the
Maryland Department of the Environment. “And the jury is still out as to whether the risk presented from these contaminants outweighs the healthbenefits that they give.”
He and other state officials also note that state advisories about recreationally caught fish are often far more stringent than Food and Drug Administration regulations for commercially caught fish sold in stores and restaurants. That’s because the FDA assumes those fish do not continually come from the same place, so people do not get continuous high levels of exposure.
Nonetheless, officials say it leaves people with a misperception that local fish may be riskier to eat. “We’re giving advice for recreationally caught sport fish that you can go to the fish market or restaurant and buy, and no one is going to tell you anything about them,” said Bob Frey, who oversees fish consumption advisories for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Regionally, though, there is concern that some populations may be at greater risk from eating local fish.
This summer, the Bay Program is supporting a pilot dockside survey aimed at finding whether particular social or economic groups — who may or may not have licenses — may be eating disproportionately large amounts of fish, especially from polluted waters. If the survey is successful, a larger sample will take place next summer.
“Our assumption is that probably some of the more subsistence fishermen may be fishing off piers in really contaminated areas,” said Kristen Chossek Malecki, a Johns Hopkins University doctorate candidate in charge of the survey. “They would be more at risk than a general fisherperson.”
Also this year, the Bay Program is supporting a broader survey to help learn more about who, among the general population, is eating recreationally caught fish, and how much are they eating.
Right now, Maryland and Virginia scientists use assumptions from research elsewhere about the amount of sport fish people consume. People around the Bay may consume more, but no one knows.
To find out, Johns Hopkins University will conduct a mail survey of 3,000 of Maryland’s 250,000 anglers. They also hope to learn how much people know about fish advisories, where they get their information, how they prepare fish and so on. The survey is expected to be expanded into Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Taken together, the dockside and mail surveys will help the states make better decisions, both about the amount of fish people are eating — and therefore the level of risk they may face — and whether specific populations face different levels of risk.
That information will also help to develop outreach programs to get information to the public and, if necessary, specific groups.
As with sampling and risk assessment, there are no firm federal rules about how the public should be informed about fish advisories. All three Bay states advise anglers in fishing regulation booklets handed out when people get licenses. In some places, especially in Virginia, there are signed; in others, notably Pennsylvania, they are not.
Shenk said the surveys, when completed throughout the watershed, will help provide a starting point for the Bay states to smooth out some differences regarding advisories, and to begin moving toward some toxics strategy goals, such as improving public outreach.
But, she acknowledged, lessons of the past two years — with the increased number of advisories — make it unlikely that the Bay states will reach anytime soon the ultimate goal of having all fish safe to eat. “It’s going to be very difficult in some cases,” she said. “In some cases, it may be impossible.”
Expanded monitoring programs, she and others note, are likely to result in more, not fewer, advisories in the near term.
And in some cases, such as the broad mercury advisories in Pennsylvania and Maryland, the problem is beyond state control. Most mercury problems result from air deposition from distant sources, largely coal-fired power plants.
“Mercury is an odd issue because we don’t have direct control over it,” Beaman said. “It is more of a nationwide issue.”
Officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania suspect more sampling may lead to more specific mercury advisories in those states.
Virginia officials say they have generally seen little statewide evidence of mercury problems in fish tissues, although some samples taken last year have warranted a second look, according to Jean Gregory, of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. (Virginia does have one mercury advisory in the Bay watershed stemming from old industrial sites.)
Even more problematic is that most other advisories result from what officials call “sins of the past” — banned pollutants that still leak into the environment from discrete sources or remain at high levels in sediment.
Largely, those legacy pollutants are PCBs, although banned pesticides such as chlordane are also problems in some areas.
In some cases, those contamination issues can be solved only through costly programs such as capping or dredging contaminated sediments. In places where they wash into rivers from stormwater, they might be captured with new — though potentially costly — treatment methods.
For many cases, it may just take years — even decades — for chemicals to be diluted or buried. “We’re hoping that they will either be covered up or flushed out of the system, but it isn’t necessarily happening very fast in a lot of places,” noted the DEP’s Frey.
In the meantime, officials say, working on other toxics strategy goals, such as phasing out end-of-pipe mixing zones, where chemicals are allowed to exceed water quality standards as they dilute in rivers, and striving for an eventual zero release of toxics will ultimately reduce the need for future advisories from today’s chemicals.
“Will that alleviate the PCB advisories?” asked the CBF’s Coble. “Maybe not. But it may alleviate an advisory that may need to come out 20 years from now, so it might be more preventative. And that is something that we feel really strongly about.”
In addition, Shenk said, the fish advisory issue illustrates the need to be more careful about new chemicals coming into use today. PCBs, chlordane and many other chemicals that cause advisories were thought to be “safe” when they were used. The toxics strategy calls for the Bay Program to evaluate such threats from potential “emerging” contaminants.
“Let’s learn from our mistakes,” she said.