Blocked study draws attention to PCBs
It examines health risks of eating fish from bay, Fox River
By Tony Walter, email@example.com
Greenbay Press Gazette
Published March 15, 2008
It has been almost 20 years since the National Wildlife Federation issued its first fish consumption warning, drawing the public's attention to the effects of PCBs and mercury on Great Lakes fish.
Back then, it was met with strong opposition from sport and commercial fishermen, among others. The debate continues to rage today.
A 400-page study on health and environmental hazards in the Great Lakes was blocked from publication by the CDC last year. Part of the report draws attention to the health risks associated with eating fish from the Lower Fox River and Green Bay.
The study was conducted by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the request of a joint Canadian-U.S. organization — the International Joint Commission, an independent bi-national organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. It is intended to prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions.
Environmental and health organizations want to know why information about fish consumption risks is not being released or given higher priority by government agencies.
"It's all part of a pattern of suppression of information," said Rebecca Katers, executive director of the Clean Water Action Council in Green Bay. "Nothing is changing, or it's changing for the worse."
But fishing on the river and bay remain a popular activity, and fishing retailers continue to do business.
Val Drzewiecki, owner of the Suamico Fish Company for the past 45 years, primarily sells bay perch and whitefish, noting that the chemical content is minimal. Carp and catfish are known to contain higher levels of PCBs, while walleyes have higher levels of mercury than smaller fish.
"I've been eating fish all my life and I'm 70," Drzewiecki said.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization, obtained a copy of the CDC report and made it public.
The CDC's study claimed there are major health risks to the 9 million people who live in the 26 Great Lakes communities identified as Areas of Concern by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada.
The government agency said it delayed the report's release because it left many questions unanswered and fell short of the required standards. A congressional investigation is under way to find out why the report still hasn't been released by the agency that sponsored it.
According to the CDC study, instances of infant mortality and neonatal infant mortality in Brown County "compared unfavorably with those of the U.S. and also with the median of the peer counties" because of the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury.
Banned in the 1970s, PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — enter the food chain and are known to cause birth defects and reproductive failure in fish-eating birds and mammals. PCBs are thought to cause developmental, immunological, reproductive and neurobehavioral problems in people, and they're considered a probable carcinogen.
Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the potential health damage caused by the presence of mercury and PCBs and other toxins has become more serious since the first advisory was issued in 1989.
"Back then, the primary risk was either organ damage or cancer," Buchsbaum said. "Since then, we've realized there is developmental damage and reproductive effects. There is also evidence that mercury from fish could have an impact on memory for middle-aged men and older."
While the amount of PCBs has declined in fish-eating birds, there has not been a documented drop in the amount of toxins in fish tissue, Buchsbaum said.
The financial benefits of a cleaner Great Lakes are huge, he said.
A study a few months ago showed that the economic benefit to cleaning up the Areas of Concern was $12 billion to $19 billion, Buchsbaum said.
"There would be more use of the waterfront, rising property values. There would be more than a 3-to-1 return on the investment."
The CDC isn't the only agency conducting research on the effect of toxins in Great Lakes fish.
Susan Schantz, an associate professor of veterinary biosciences at the University of Illinois and a Green Bay native, has been studying the impact of fish consumption among the Hmong and Laotian communities in the Green Bay area. Her results are expected later this year.
Schantz and her team also have started a grant-sponsored study of the fish consumption effects on teenagers.
"Our studies on rats showed that there seemed to be an impact on things such as planning and paying attention," Schantz said.
These characteristics are often associated with teenagers so the study that began in October is aimed at 300 to 400 Green Bay-area teenagers who have at least one parent with a fishing license. The study is expected to take several years.
The disbursement of information to the public doesn't rise to the level of the danger to human health, Katers said.
"It's a serious problem and the public isn't getting adequate warnings," Katers said.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources printed 40,000 copies of the brochure "Choose Wisely: A health Guide for Eating Fish in Wisconsin" but does not hand them out when a fishing license is purchased, she said.
The DNR's Green Bay office does not include the brochure among the dozens of otherson display in its lobby but has copies available upon request. It is also available on the DNR's Web site: www.dnr.state .wi.us.
"In Ohio and Michigan, the advisories remain online," Buchsbaum said. "But without a paper advisory, it's clear that many anglers just don't see the warning."