Experts operating states apart confirm toxic content in not just shrimp, but crab and fish too
The federal government is going out of its way to assure the public that seafood pulled from recently reopened Gulf of Mexico waters is safe to consume, in spite of the largest accidental release of crude oil in America’s history.
However, testing methodologies used by the government to deem areas of water safe for commercial fishing are woefully inadequate and permit high levels of toxic compounds to slip into the human food chain, according to a series of scientific and medical professionals interviewed by Raw Story.
In two separate cases, a toxicologist and a chemist independently confirmed their seafood samples contained unusually high volumes of crude oil and harmful hydrocarbons — and some of this food was allegedly being sent to market.
One test, conducted by a chemist from Mobile, Alabama, employed a rudimentary chemical analysis of shrimp pulled from waters near Louisiana and found “oil and grease” in their digestive tracts.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) tests, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have focused on the animal’s flesh, with samples shelled and cleaned before undergoing examination.
Unfortunately, many Gulf coast residents prepare shrimp whole, tossing the creatures into boiling water shells and all.
“I wouldn’t eat shrimp, fish or crab caught in the Gulf,” said Robert M. Naman, a chemist at ACT Labs in Mobile, Alabama, who conducted the test after being contacted by a New Orleans activist. “The problems people will face, health-wise, are something that people don’t understand.”
Naman also found that the oil was at an unusual high concentration: 193 parts-per-million (PPM).
Though Naman’s test did not provide a complete fingerprint of the chemical spectrum, his results are still “an important finding,” according to Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist at the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, Maine.
“193 parts-per-million of petroleum in a crustacean is very high,” she told Raw Story. “You have to ask, what is the meaning from a human health perspective?
“This is another signal that oil is in the food chain in the Gulf. Oil has been found in subsea plumes, in seafloor sediments, where it will degrade very slowly and can be re-released into the food chain.”
Tainted seafood allegedly headed to market
In another series of tests, Dr. William Sawyer, of the Sanibel, Florida-based Toxicology Consultants & Assessment Specialists, replicated findings of oil in shrimp digestive tracts, but he noted an even higher content of harmful hydrocarbons in the flesh of other edible creatures.
And, Dr. Sawyer said, some of his test samples came from seafood on its way to market, pulled from waters recently classified as safe for commercial fishing activities.
“They did not test the [total petroleum hydrocarbons] (TPH) in their samples,” he said, calling his testing methodologies a much more comprehensive way of examining compounds present in seafood.
“The sensory test employed by the FDA detects compounds that are volatile that have an odor; we’re detecting compounds that are low volatility and are very low odor,” he added. “We found not only petroleum in the digestive tracts [of shrimp], but also in the edible portions of fish.
“We’ve collected shrimp, oysters and finned fish on their way to marketplace — we tested a good number of seafood samples and in 100 percent we found petroleum.”
The FDA says up to 100-PPM of oil and dispersant residue is safe to consume in finned fish, and 500-PPM is allowed for shellfish.
Dr. Sawyer, who has long been a vocal critic of these rules, called the government’s tests “little more than a farce.”
“[The FDA's safety threshold] is borderline absurd,” Naman added. “It’s geared so that shrimpers can go back to work, and that’s great — but if we’re talking about human health and the environment, you need to proceed slowly.”
The FDA ignored multiple requests for comment on this story.
Long-term health effects still unknown
Direct exposure to crude oil can cause a number of health issues for humans, but most of them are short-lived or relative and none of the potential long-term effects are guaranteed.
While the full array of effects are still being studied and debated by the medical community, crude oil does contain benzene, which can cause cancer, along with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are toxic to the brain and nervous system.
The latter has been found in virtually all NOAA samples of Gulf seafood, but very few samples exceeded the maximum allowable levels set by federal safety regulators. Even so, according to Dr. Sawyer, PAH levels detected by the NOAA in Gulf region shrimp were almost always 10 times that of levels found in shrimp farmed inland.
The FDA recently declared that out of 1,735 samples of Gulf seafood tested from June through Sept., only 13 showed levels of residues above its allowable threshold.
It is unclear whether regular consumption of this content of oil would sicken a person, how quickly its symptoms would begin to show, or in what ways they would manifest.
The initial effects of oil toxicity from ingestion include headaches, nausea, fatigue and rapid changes in mental state, according to Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant director of the California Poison Control System, who spoke to The Los Angeles Times in June.
Those changes in mental state may actually be the most damaging lasting effect of the BP oil spill, according to Dr. Russell W. H. Kridel, a member of the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health.
Kridel, whose specialty is actually in plastic surgery and ear-nose-and-throat disorders, spoke to Raw Story because the AMA’s council has prepared a comprehensive report on the health effects of the BP oil spill.
“Most of the problems encountered [along the Gulf coast] were more mental health problems than anything else,” he said. “There are respiratory health problems just from burning oil. You can get rashes from skin contact, headaches, vomiting or nausea, which has affected a lot of relief workers.
“There’s a lot of chronic stress and mental health disorders too, and those last longer than the acute, short-term effects. We cannot really tell you the long-term effects, just because of lack of long-term studies.”
He added that while he could not comment on evidence of oil in the digestive tracts of shrimp, some marine life have consumed oil content for centuries due to natural seepage near fault lines thought to account for over 600,000 metric tonnes of oil released across all the world’s oceans every year.
By comparison, scientists with the US Geological Survey and US Department of Energy estimate BP spilled at or near 4.9 million barrels — or approximately 666,400 metric tonnes of crude.
“[Most other oil spills] don’t show any long term effects on the local populations, but the size of previous oil spills are not this large,” he said. “This was the largest oil disaster in US history so I really can’t say what the full effect will be.”
Yet still, “no group has issued a warning or concern that it could affect human health by eating seafood,” Dr. Kridel emphasized.
The AMA has been active in coordinating efforts to track the health effects of BP’s oil spill. A report, recently passed by the group’s house of delegates, committed the AMA to continued monitoring of spill-related health effects.
Despite declaring safety, even the NOAA’s own tests show regular consumption of Gulf seafood will dramatically heighten one’s intake of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
This, combined with a lack of testing for total petroleum hydrocarbons — and questions as to whether samples were in great enough number to declare wide swaths of water safe for fishing — should be enough to convince any skeptical eater to avoid Gulf seafood for the time being.
“I’m not eating fish. I wouldn’t advise anyone to eat fish,” chemist Robert Naman insisted. “[The government is] more worried about livelihoods and tourism, but I’m ultimately more concerned with human health.”
Dr. Sawyer agreed: “I don’t recommend eating Gulf seafood, not with the risk of liver and kidney damage,” he said. “The reason FDA has not made that advisory is because they’ve relied on this sensory test. You may as well send inspectors out to look at the fish and say they look nice. They’re sniffing for something they can’t detect.”
Because of the unknown nature of the threat posed, chemically sensitive populations like women, children, the elderly and people with depressed immune function or existing illness would be especially well advised to exercise caution when choosing seafood.
“Once oil enters, it can damage every organ, every system in the body,” Dr. Shaw concluded. “There is no safe level of exposure to this oil, because it contains carcinogens, mutagens that can damage DNA and cause cancer and other chronic health problems. Many people in the Gulf have been exposed for months — not just workers but residents. There are hundreds of health complaints from local people with symptoms that resemble symptoms of oil exposure.
“It will be years, possibly decades, before we understand the extent and nature of the health effects caused by this spill.”
Photo: Flickr user adactio.