In Our View: Time to Tackle Toxins in Fish

High levels of mercury, PCBs in Columbia species cause for alarm, and action

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Dire environmental news often is met with skepticism, doubt, or a general lack of concern from the public. But when a test for toxins in fish comes in at nearly 4,000 times the acceptable level, then we have a problem that can't be ignored.

Such is the case with some fish near Bonneville Dam, where recent evaluations led officials this week to issue advisories against consuming certain kinds of fish from that portion of the Columbia River. The Washington Department of Health and the Oregon Health Authority declared that people should limit consumption of resident species from a 150-mile swath of the river that serves as a crucial social and economic artery for the Northwest.

Fearing mercury and PCB contamination, officials said that people should eat no more than one meal a week of resident fish — those that live year-round in the same place — between Bonneville and McNary dams. Resident species in the Columbia include bass, bluegill, yellow perch, crappie, walleye, carp, catfish, suckers, and sturgeon.

The reason? Scientists measured the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in fish samples from near the dam. The most contaminated sample measured PCB at 183 parts per million, when the threshold for an advisory is 0.047 parts per million. Talk about being off the charts.

Other samples revealed elevated levels of mercury in fish throughout that area.

The advisory does not apply to migratory fish, such as salmon and steelhead, because they spend most of their time at sea. But officials offered particular caution for women of childbearing age. Mercury and PCBs build up over time, being stored in the body, and developing fetuses, nursing infants and small children are most vulnerable to their negative health effects.

"The message isn't to not eat fish at all," said Dave Farrer, public health toxicologist for the Oregon Health Authority. "We want people, especially pregnant women, to eat fish. We just want them to choose fish correctly. We hope these advisories are a good tool to help them." And, hopefully, they are a good tool for reminding the public of the need for diligent stewardship of the environment.

PCBs were banned by federal law in 1976, but prior to that they were used in large-scale electrical components at the dam. According to The Oregonian, when the components wore out, they were illegally dumped into the river. The PCBs leaked, contaminated sediment, and were absorbed by bugs that were eaten by small fish that were eaten by larger fish and so on. With humans being at the end of the food chain, decades later those PCBs are creating health concerns.

Many allegories throughout human history have pondered a world without fish, but an even more frightening scenario is a world abundant in fish that are not safe to eat.

Which is why the latest discovery should lead to action. As Harry Smiskin, Yakama Nation chairman said: "The new advisories once again pass the burden of responsibility from industry and government to tribes and people in the region. Rather than addressing the contamination, we are being told to reduce our reliance on the Columbia River's fish. This is unacceptable. The focus should not be 'do not eat' — it should be 'clean up' the Columbia River."

Overriding public sentiment long has been that the rivers and oceans repair themselves, that a bit of contamination is, to borrow a phrase, like spitting in the ocean. But this week's advisory serves as a reminder that the food chain connects humans with numerous other species. And that means this presents a problem that cannot be ignored.