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Thursday, February 16, 2006 - Page updated at 07:57 AM

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Toxins found in fish for sale

Seattle Times staff reporter

Some fish sold at Washington groceries contains so much mercury or PCBs that people should limit their consumption, a study by the state Department of Health has found.

Even so, the first state survey of grocery fish also found that many other kinds of fish are safe to eat in moderate amounts, and state health officials highlighted that in a continued push to get people to eat fish regularly.

"Fish are great food. We want everybody to be eating the recommended two meals a week. But there are contaminants," said Jim VanDerslice, a Health Department epidemiologist.

Halibut and red snapper bought from local stores had mercury — a brain poison — at levels high enough that children and women of childbearing age should eat no more than one meal a week of the fish, based on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines.

And chinook salmon topped the list for the most PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a long-banned chemical suspected of causing cancer and impairing brain development.

But the results have experts divided on the dangers. Health Department officials say the PCB levels in the salmon are too low to put people at risk unless they eat unusually large amounts of the fish. But some environmentalists point out that EPA guidelines say eating chinook salmon with that much PCB more than once a month could increase the risk of cancer.

First look at grocers

Until now, there was little way for local shoppers to know what chemicals were in the fish they buy, or how much of it they should eat.

The Department of Health has monitored wild fish in local rivers and lakes for toxic chemicals, and issues warnings if it finds a problem. But store-bought fish, which can come from all over the world, has been largely ignored.

So the Health Department started the study of grocery fish last year after concluding "we really don't have a handle on what the levels are," said Dave McBride, a Health Department toxicologist.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets rules for how much mercury or PCBs are allowed in fish sold at stores. But the agency does only limited checking. Washington state public-health officials also consider the FDA's limits too high.

Shopping for fish

Health Department workers went to stores all over the state and bought canned tuna and fresh fillets from eight different kinds of fish. The fish was then tested for mercury, PCBs and PBDEs, which are flame-retardants that have recently been found to accumulate in people's bodies.

The most mercury was found in canned albacore tuna, so much so that EPA guidelines say that women and children should eat no more than four cans a month.

Those findings confirm previous federal warnings that some tuna species tend to have higher mercury levels. There has been no similar government warning about red snapper and halibut, which the state study found have enough mercury to warrant limiting consumption. The fish with the least mercury included catfish, pollock, salmon, flounder and cod.

Eat salmon?

There's less agreement about the safety of salmon.

The fish bought for the study, which were labeled as chinook, had more than twice as much PCBs on average than any other species.

State health officials side with the EPA's advice on limits to protect brain development, rather than more strict limits meant to guard against cancer. As a result, the state says people can safely eat two servings of chinook a week — more than a typical Washingtonian eats.

The EPA's cancer limits would cut that recommendation to no more than one meal of salmon a month. But the Health Department rejects that standard, saying it is less certain because the limits are based on research on animals instead of on people exposed to PCBs, said Rob Duff, director of the Health Department's Office of Environmental Health Assessments.

And Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist who has studied health effects of PCBs, said the risk of eating salmon should be balanced against the chemicals that people ingest in other foods.

"You have to look at what people really eat, and Americans eat like crap," she said. "There are a lot more changes that you could make other than cutting out salmon. In fact, I would argue that you should eat salmon."

But others say the EPA guidelines on cancer risks are there for a reason.

"One meal a month is about what I would recommend for wild chinook," said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, in New York, who published a 2004 paper in the journal Science about PCB levels in salmon.

He says there is plenty of research pointing to PCBs as a carcinogen.

The fishing industry prefers having the FDA police the food supply.

"Whatever you eat has good things and bad things," said Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association in Seattle. "It seems that the vast body of evidence is that seafood is one of the healthiest proteins you can eat."

Finding a balance

The dispute underscores a balance that public-health officials have been trying to strike with the risks and benefits of eating fish.

The Health Department's Duff worries that warnings about toxic chemicals will scare people away from fish altogether, meaning they would miss a source of protein that is high in healthful fats thought to guard against heart disease.

So, rather than urge people to avoid certain fish, the department prefers to steer people toward fish that are considered "healthier" choices, and they advise people to reduce PCB exposure by trimming off skin and grilling the fish.

And in a new experiment, the agency is trying to persuade several grocery chains in Thurston County to put up posters or brochures advising people which fish are the most healthful.

Among the top fish on that list: cod, flounder, pollock, light tuna, catfish — and salmon.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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