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On the hook.

When health experts advised a switch from high-fat red meats to fish, millions heeded the call: consumption of fish in the United States jumped by 24 percent during the 1980s. But it was not necessarily a risk-free conversion. Two recent reports--one by the Environmental Protection Agency, the other by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)-- warn that fish taken from many of the nation's lakes, streams, and estuaries contain hazardous levels of mercury, PCBs, dieldrin (a pesticide), and other toxic pollutants.

The EPA began investigating disturbing fish stories a few years ago as state after state restricted consumption of one or more freshwater-fish species caught within their borders. Currently, the only five states without restrictions are Hawaii, Idaho, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

The EPA report, released in September 1992, evaluated the fish caught at 388 inland sites for 60 potentially hazardous chemicals. Fish from more than half the locations contained numerous organic poisons, according to the report, and "PCBs, mercury, and biphenyl were detected at more than 90 percent of the sites."

The agency then estimated the increased cancer risk if a typical American were to spend 70 years eating two 4-ounce servings a month of fish caught at the waterways under investigation. For about 90 percent of the sites, the EPA estimated a risk of about one in 10,000. For 42 of the sites, however, the risk was greater than this. But the agency went on to say that none of the fish, even those from the most polluted sites, posed a major risk to humans, with the exception of those subsistence and avid recreational fishers who obtain much of their food from the worst waterways.

The EDF report was not so sanguine. Released two months after the EPA study, it charged that the agency understated the health risks from eating contaminated fish. While the EDF had only minor quibbles with the EPA's analysis of the toxic chemicals identified, it blasted the agency's assessment of cancer risk, saying that its consumption estimates were based on a survey done long before fish became as popular in our diets as it is today. "The Commerce Department reports that Americans now eat nearly 15 pounds of fish a year, more than twice the amount that formed the basis for the EPA's risk assessment," the EDF report noted.

What's a concerned icthyophile to do? The American Dietetic Association offers these suggestions:

* Alternate between freshwater and saltwater fish. In general, saltwater fish and seafood are less contaminated.

* Find out where freshwater fish comes from. Fish-farm trout is safer than that from lakes or streams. Fish from the Great Lakes is highly suspect, as are fish and oysters from Chesapeake Bay.

* Don't eat fish, including canned tuna, more than three times a week. Pregnant women should not eat fish from inland waters more than once a month.

* Steer clear of raw shellfish.

* Remove all visible fat before cooking, including the skin, as toxic chemicals generally accumulate in fatty tissue.

* Select smaller fish; they've spent less time in polluted waters and have picked up fewer contaminants.

Before baiting your hook, call your state department of natural resources and ask if your favorite fishing hole has been named in any bans or restrictions. If so, don't eat what you catch. Throw 'em back, and send a line to your legislators, letting them know it's time to get serious about cleaning up our inland waters.
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Title Annotation:contamination of fish by toxic pollutants
Author:Castleman, Michael
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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