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Fish from river carry toxic risk

Mon., July 21, 2008

Lands Council works to increase awareness

Armed with a clipboard and “How to Skin a Fish” handouts, Sean Hackett approached a woman and her baby daughter as they played on a sandy beach at Peoples Park.

Hackett, an intern for The Lands Council, introduced himself, and started asking questions.

How often did the woman come to the Spokane River? Was she familiar with PCBs? Did she ever eat fish from the river?

The woman was friendly, but slightly wary of the inquisitive stranger.

Yes, she often brings her kids to the river. Yes, she knew the river was contaminated, but she’d never heard of PCBs or their link to cancer. No, neither she nor her children eat fish from the river.

Hackett will repeat the conversation dozens of times this summer at parks and other gathering spots. The outreach by The Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group, is in its fifth year. It’s designed to ensure that people – particularly low-income, homeless and ethnic populations – understand the risks of eating line-caught trout and other fish from an urban river.

Pockets of pollution lie beneath the Spokane River’s rippling blue waters, deposited during a century of industrial activity. PCBs are a particular concern.

Banned in the 1970s, polychlorinated biphenyls once were used in house paints, hydraulic fluids, wood sealants and adhesives. PCBs don’t break down in the environment. They’re stored in fat, and they’ve been linked to cancer, liver damage, reproductive problems and impaired development in children.

The Spokane Regional Health District first called attention to high levels of PCBs in fish from the river’s upper stretches in 1995. Numerous advisories followed.

The advisories warn against eating fish caught from the Spokane River’s upper stretches and recommend only one meal per month of fish from the river’s middle section. In the lower Spokane River, advisories out this spring suggest no more than two meals per week for most fish. (For more detailed information, visit Search for “Fish Consumption Advisory.”)

Skinning, filleting and grilling fish also reduces exposure to contaminants by removing most of the fat.

“There’s this paradox with eating fish,” said Dave McBride, lead toxicologist for Washington’s fish advisory program. “It is how most people get their exposure to PCBs and mercury. And yet it seems like there’s another study out every week touting the benefits of eating fish.”

His employer – the state Department of Health – endorses eating fish twice per week as part of a healthy diet.

McBride said the fish-consumption advisories balance the risk and health benefits. The state uses federal guidelines to determine safe-eating limits.

But even the advisories can be controversial.

“I take the conservative approach. I would not eat the fish in the Spokane River,” said Peter deFur, president of Environmental Stewardship and Concepts, a Virginia consulting firm focused on environmental health and risk assessment.

DeFur was hired to analyze cleanup plans for the Spokane River. He’s a consultant for the Center for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Spokane.

The Spokane River contains “this cocktail of toxic chemicals” that primarily affect the reproductive and nervous systems, deFur said. In addition to PCBs, the river is polluted with dioxins, mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium and PBDEs – chemical flame retardants.

Fish advisories are written to address high levels of individual pollutants, deFur said. They don’t consider the potential cumulative effect of multiple compounds at low levels, he said.

McBride said he’s reluctant to issue blanket “no fish” advisories when individuals can manage their risk by limiting meals and avoiding fish from some sections of the river.

“You’re taking away an important source of protein for some people,” he said.

Hackett, the Lands Council intern, met a homeless man who fishes the river. Even after hearing about the PCBs, the man told Hackett he would continue to eat everything he could catch.

“He said he would still eat lots of fish from the river,” Hackett said.

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or

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