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People not warned mercury fish { July 30 2001 }

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People not warned about mercury in fish
Toxic danger lurks as anglers seek 'whatever bites' in the Columbia

Monday, July 30, 2001


NORTHPORT -- The toxic metal mercury was discovered in Columbia River fish more than a decade ago, but the state has yet to post signs warning fishermen that children who eat the fish can suffer neurological damage.

At the same time, state government and local businesses promote tourism at Lake Roosevelt, the 130-mile-long reservoir on the Columbia. "Break out your fishing pole," a state government Web site urges potential visitors to the area.

Authorities did put up signs to warn anglers about dioxin and related compounds in the fish in the early 1990s. But most of those signs were stolen or shot up.

And they may have backfired. The fish-eating limits recommended in those dioxin signs turned out to be several times higher than limits authorities later endorsed because of mercury in the fish. Yet no signs were posted to warn of stricter mercury-based restrictions. And some fishermen still remember the older, more lenient warnings.

Health Department epidemiologist Glen Patrick said a major reason that no signs were posted regarding mercury is that they would cost too much.

Those most at risk from eating mercury-tainted fish are young children, whose developing brains and nervous systems are particularly susceptible to poisoning by the heavy metal. A mid-1990s state survey of fishermen showed that nearly a third of the people catching fish in the upper Columbia had children at home.

The survey failed to settle questions by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, whose land borders Lake Roosevelt, about consumption of tainted fish by tribal members. Only one of every 40 anglers interviewed was Native American.

And officials have not checked back lately on the fish-eating habits of fishermen in the area. Lake Roosevelt draws about 1.5 million visitors each year, many of them intent on catching and eating fish.

"I've eaten lots of fish. It's never bothered me," retired Deputy Sheriff Bob Weilep.

"It hasn't killed me yet," angler Jerry Bakeng said on a recent day as he fished for trout, walleye and "whatever bites" with his dog Mickey, a Budweiser and a pack of Marlboros at his side. He said he had eaten a 20-inch rainbow trout the day before. "If I catch a fish, I'm having it for dinner," he said.

Isn't he worried about the mercury?

"You'd have to eat a hundred a week," he said.

But that's not right. The danger is greater than Bakeng realizes, epidemiologists say.

The last public warning about Columbia fish was a four-page pamphlet about mercury in walleye published by the state Health Department. About 10,000 of those pamphlets were distributed in 1997 through county health departments, the National Park Service, Indian tribes and other avenues.

On Friday, after being questioned by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Health Department's Patrick recalculated the limits based on 1998 tests that showed mercury levels in Lake Roosevelt fish had dropped substantially.

Now, he figures, women of childbearing age should limit their consumption of walleye, bass and rainbow trout to a single half-pound meal per week. Children, he said, should eat no more than one half-pound per month, or a quarter-pound meal once every two weeks. Those limits are slightly looser than in the 1997 pamphlet.

Patrick did not recommend a limit for adult male anglers such as Bakeng, although Health Department Senior Epidemiologist Jim VanDerslice said men concerned about mercury may want to limit their consumption to one meal per week.

But the state has never told people that. And the limits mentioned in the dioxin signs in 1991 appear to have confused people around here.

Even Ollie Mae Wilson, the mayor of Northport, a town about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, said initially when questioned about pollution in the river that someone would have to eat 40 meals a month to be hurt. She later withdrew that estimate, saying she is unsure how much a person should eat.

She, like Bakeng and some other fishermen in this area, appears to be recalling the dioxin warning signs posted in 1991. The 12-by-22-inch, black-on-yellow signs told anglers to limit their consumption of fish to 20 meals per month.

The signs warning about dioxin were posted at boat ramps run by the National Park Service, Patrick said, but later park service officials reported that many had been pulled down or shot up. "We should be reposting them," he said.

But Patrick also said he is not convinced that posting signs would help much, based on a recent survey of anglers who fish Lake Whatcom, where fish also are tainted by mercury. They were asked what would get the message across best and, "signs were not at the top of the list," Patrick said.

He said the health department held several public meetings in the Lake Roosevelt area in the mid-1990s and that the issue received media coverage in newspapers, including the Colville Herald. Authorities believed "we were being pretty sufficient," Patrick said.

What is the state supposed to do when it discovers toxins in fish?

"There is not a standard procedure," Patrick said. "It's a process that we at the state are trying to develop. ... While we have a way to go, we are improving."

And are the limits recommended previously being followed? Did the message get out?

The 1994-95 angler survey showed "people are taking these fish home and feeding them to kids," Patrick said. But because of the way the 6-year-old survey was set up, "The bottom line is, with kids, we don't know how much kids are eating," he said.

Mercury can come from a number of sources, including coal-burning power plants, wastewater treatment facilities, drainage water from farm fields doused with mercury-bearing pesticides and some natural sources. In the upper Columbia, though, much of the mercury is believed to have come from discharges from mines and smelters. Dozens of mines were worked in the hills around Northport, and upstream smelters and mills have disgorged billions of gallons of waste into the Columbia River system.

At least some mercury was contained in wastes discharged into the Columbia in Trail, B.C., by a lead-zinc smelter, and miners in 1991 reported finding ball-like deposits of mercury up to 30 feet wide in the river.

This summer an EPA team is taking samples of sediments and trying to trace some of the likely contamination sources.

Last week, the state of Massachusetts warned that women of child-bearing age and children under 12 should not eat any wild freshwater fish because of mercury contamination there.

Massachusetts was the only state identified as having adopted standards to protect children by a recent report by the Environmental Working Group, a research group, and the Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog group.

"The burden is on consumers right now," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's research director. "The message isn't getting out."

She cited a study released in March by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that, nationally, about one in 10 women of childbearing age carries a level of mercury in her blood that has been shown to harm unborn children. Houlihan said authorities should post signs as well as pass out pamphlets, place information in the media and -- significantly, though rarely done, she said -- make a major effort to notify doctors, particularly obstetricians who care for pregnant women.

Because state health departments have not done a very good job of warning people about the risks of mercury, she wants the federal government to step in.

"Every state is doing something completely different," Houlihan said. "So if you live in Massachusetts, you're fairly well-protected, but if you move three states away, it's a whole different story."

Guide to avoiding mercury risk

The Washington Department of Health offers this advice for people who eat fish from the upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt:

Consume younger, smaller fish that likely have accumulated fewer toxins.

Avoid eating bottom fish such as catfish, carp or sturgeon.

Remove skin, fat and internal organs.

Cook fish by grilling, broiling or baking so the fat drips off.

Women of child-bearing age should eat no more than one-half pound per week of walleye, rainbow trout or bass.

Children under 6 should eat no more than one-quarter pound every two weeks (one-half pound per month) of walleye, rainbow trout or bass.


P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or

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