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Exclusive: Heavy metals go untested in Gulf seafood

By Brad Jacobson
Thursday, September 23, 2010 8:00 EDT
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(Read Part I: Gulf seafood poses long-term health risks.)

Experts urge caution for pregnant women and young children

Despite claims from President Barack Obama and federal officials that Gulf seafood is safe and poses no long-term health risks, no testing for heavy metals is occurring in fish or shellfish in areas that have been reopened to commercial and recreational fishing.

Both National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FDA officials told Raw Story that fish and shellfish being tested for the purpose of reopening waters to commercial and recreational fishing are not being tested for heavy metals.

Whenever Raw Story raised the lack of heavy metal testing, FDA and NOAA officials routinely referenced a “Mussel Watch” program. Yet neither agency seemed to have a clear grasp on how this program actually collected useful data related to the heavy metal levels in the seafood currently being fished and sold to market.

Raw Story examined the “Mussel Watch” page on NOAA’s website and found no clear additional protocol in place for protecting the public from these contaminants in their seafood due to the BP oil spill.

This is particularly troubling to scientists and public health experts.

Gina Solomon, a doctor and public health expert in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, told Raw Story, “What we would expect is the heavy metal levels in Gulf seafood will be starting to creep up as a result of the spill.”

Solomon, a co-author on last month’s peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study on Gulf seafood safety and also a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), cautioned, “And so right now, we might not be seeing elevated levels, but right now is the time to collect baseline information and to develop a sampling plan for monitoring into the future to make sure that levels don’t continue to rise and cause trouble months or years from now.”

She said it’s important to remember that fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico already contained certain levels of heavy metals prior to the BP oil spill, which, at its height, gushed oil at an estimated rate equivalent to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster – previously the largest in US history – every four days.

Solomon also noted that there is a precedent for these contaminants to linger for a decade or so in the food chain, as was the case during the aftermath to Exxon Valdez. Her JAMA report cites a 2002 study in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Environmental Research, which showed elevated levels of contaminants ten years after the spill.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist at the NRDC who contributed to the JAMA study, noted that testing for heavy metals in these areas is also critical in the near-term in case elevated levels make it necessary to revise warnings now, particularly for pregnant women and young children, who are the most vulnerable to the impact of contaminants like mercury, lead and cadmium.

If the levels change, she said, then a woman can reduce the amount of seafood she’s eating or eliminate it entirely and reduce her likelihood of any adverse impact.

“We know that heavy metals are linked to the development of cancer over the course of time,” said Edward Trapido, the Wendell Gauthier Chair of Cancer Epidemiology at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. “So if there is no testing, then that’s a problem for sure.”

Trapido testified in June at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on the spill and is heading a research group at LSU that will look at a range of health effects, including psychiatric and behavioral effects, chronic diseases and cancers.

He pointed out that heavy metals also have associations with Alzheimer’s disease and birth defects.

David Plunkett, senior staff attorney with the food safety program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, confirmed another reason why baseline tests for heavy metals are critical: holding BP accountable if levels are shown to increase substantially over time.

“That’s probably your best example of what it means if we don’t have these baseline tests,” said Plunkett. “We don’t have something to hold them responsible for the problems they caused.”

Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story.

 
 
 
 
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