Federal government admits not testing for arsenic, mercury or other toxic heavy metals in seafood

The US government, and even President Obama himself, have said that Gulf seafood is safe to eat in the wake of the massive BP oil spill.

But an admission from the federal government that it hasn't been testing Gulf seafood for toxic heavy metals, and news that fishermen are being forced to sign waivers making them liable for toxins in their catch, suggest not everyone is convinced of the safety of Gulf seafood.

Louisiana fishermen's activist Kindra Arnesen says dock owners are asking fishermen to sign waivers that put the full responsibility for toxins found in the catch on the fishermen themselves.

"This liability cannot fall with our fishermen," she said in a video posted to blogger Alexander Higgins' Web site.

Arnesen's claim comes as Louisiana prepares to allow shrimping on the coast to resume this Monday. A news report from IPS says many shrimpers in the Gulf are simply unwilling to go back in the water, due to fears their catch could be contaminated.

Mississippi commercial shrimper James "Catfish" Miller told IPS there's only one place on the state's coast where oysters can be caught, "and there is oil and dispersants all over the top of it."

Mississippi lifted its ban on commercial fishing in the Gulf earlier this month, but Miller and others refuse to start fishing again. Miller showed IPS a simple test to prove the waters are still contaminated: He sank an absorbent rag into the water, and minutes later pulled it up. "The rags were covered in a brown oily substance that the fishermen identified as a mix of BP's crude oil and toxic dispersants," IPS reports.


In House hearings this week, federal government officials indicated they have not been testing for heavy metals known to exist in crude oil, some of which can be toxic to humans and are believed to be able to build up in marine life after an oil spill.

During questioning by House Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), FDA Acting Deputy Director Donald Kraemer said his agency isn't monitoring for the presence of heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury in Gulf seafood. He suggested that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may be handling that area.

But NOAA senior scientist Bill Lehr didn't have an answer for Markey as to whether the NOAA is monitoring for heavy metals, and said only, "We'll get back to you with an answer on that."

"It's my understanding that compounds like mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that are present in crude oil have the ability to accumulate in the tissues of fish in levels that may cause harm particularly to pregnant women and children," Markey said.

But the FDA's Kraemer told Markey that his agency "does not expect to see an increase" in heavy toxins from the spill.

That comment befuddled some oil spill observers and scientists. As Washington's Blog notes, crude oil contains not only heavy metals, but organic compounds such as benzene and toluene, which are toxic to humans.

An Associated Press report earlier this month reported that a study on crab larvae in the Gulf concluded that oil from the spill is making its way into the food chain:

The government said last week that three-quarters of the spilled oil has been removed or naturally dissipated from the water. But the crab larvae discovery was an ominous sign that crude had already infiltrated the Gulf's vast food web -- and could affect it for years to come.

"It would suggest the oil has reached a position where it can start moving up the food chain instead of just hanging in the water," said Bob Thomas, a biologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Something likely will eat those oiled larvae ... and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on."

Tiny creatures might take in such low amounts of oil that they could survive, Thomas said. But those at the top of the chain, such as dolphins and tuna, could get fatal "megadoses."

"In my 42 years of studying crabs I've never seen this," [biologist Harriet] Perry said.


Kindra Arnesen, who works with the Cultural Heritage Society of Louisiana, is warning of a "cultural genocide" of the Gulf Coast fishing industry if the government doesn't start testing for heavy metals in seafood.

"There's going to be a cultural genocide of they don't test the seafood and make sure that it's safe," she said. "Not only to protect our fishermen, but hello, what about the consumer? ... We pride ourselves on bringing fresh, uncontaminated seafood to the market for the consumer to eat."

The concerns of fisherman and scientists alike seem to contradict the positive tone the federal government has taken with respect to oil in the Gulf.

"Let me be clear: Seafood from the Gulf … is safe to eat,” President Obama recently said at an appearance in Theodore, Alabama.

It's "important for consumers... to know that their food is safe, but it’s also important for the fishermen and processors, who need to be able to sell their products with confidence,” Obama said.

The following video was posted to the Web by Alex Higgins, August 17, 2010.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/CIF57Fphj2E?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

The following video of a House Energy and Commerce sub-committee meeting on August 19, 2010 was uploaded to the Web by FloridaOilSpillLaw.com.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/qGckevATNPY?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]