Information on health impacts of mercury lacking
It’s a hot, sunny day at Gordon Park on Cleveland’s east side, and the fish are biting. Seven-year-old Robert Pruitt dangles his line over the bulkheads and waits for a pull.
When his line suddenly goes taut, he’s so excited that he almost forgets what to do. He looks at his great-grandmother, Eunetta McGlothan, 79, who’s sitting on a nearby picnic bench and yelling at him to reel it in.
Robert pulls a glimmering sunfish from Lake Erie and shows it to McGlothan.
“Is it a keeper?” the boy asks her; she nods and together they string it on a line.
Families throughout Ohio often enjoy these warm moments on the banks of the state’s waterways. They frequent Gordon Park and other Lake Erie fishing holes daily, hoping to bring home a fresh catch of yellow perch, rock bass and walleye. Similar scenes play out along the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers in Columbus, the Maumee River in Toledo and other state waterways.
But if the anglers are fishing for dinner food – and not just for occasional fun – they probably don’t know there can be too much of a good thing.
In Ohio – unlike other Great Lakes States – anglers are catching fish without the benefits of signs and information about what’s in the fish that they’re catching. For those who engage in subsistence fishing – in other words, to put food on the table – those advisories could provide information critical to their long-term health.
Compared to Michigan, which conducts extensive outreach to anglers to warn them about the dangers of too much fish consumption, Ohio does little in terms of advisories or public health warnings.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned that anglers from low-income communities or communities of color are vulnerable to the dangers of mercury contamination.
Good for the waistline, bad for the nervous system
Some fish consumption can be good for us – fish are high in protein and low in fat – but eating too much fish can be dangerous.
The danger comes mostly from mercury, which is emitted by coal-fired power plants and, through condensation, makes its way from the air to the water. Studies have shown that mercury overload can damage the nervous systems of babies. In adults, high levels of mercury consumption can lead to negative cardiovascular and neurologic effects.
The 2013 Ohio Sport Fish Health and Consumption Advisory issued by the Ohio Department of Health recommends eating only one meal of Ohio sport fish per week. Children under 15 and women of child-bearing age are considered especially sensitive populations.
For specific species, the ODH recommends that Ohioans limit consumption of yellow perch and bluegill to two meals per week. With some types of catfish, pike and steelhead trout, the advisory is stricter – once a month.
While the health advisory represents a general warning for most waterways, the state says there also are some “areas of concern,” for sections of some rivers and lakes. Special caution is advised for those locations because old industrial pollutants might linger in the sediment.
(For the full fish consumption advisory, go to: www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/fishadvisory/index.aspx)
Fish are biting, with no health advisories in sight
Though the dangers of eating too much fish are well known by health experts and environmentalists, anglers aren’t nearly as up-to-date on mercury contamination and other ill effects of over-consumption.
Anglers interviewed for this story weren’t aware of the specifics of the guidelines. Roosevelt Ezell, a Euclid resident who regularly fishes at Gordon Park, was surprised to learn he should only have catfish once a month. He eats it once or twice a week.
Jed Thorp, conservation program manager with the Ohio Sierra Club, said the state is not doing enough to educate anglers about the fish consumption advisory.
“This is a serious health issue and it’s incumbent upon the state to do everything it can to inform people,” said Thorp. “The Ohio EPA issues fish advisories, but if the advisories aren’t going to the people who fish and consume fish on a regular basis, what good are they?”
The Ohio EPA posts information about fish consumption on its website and sends press releases to the media when a new advisory is issued or updated. The agency also distributes brochures to clinics serving low-income, pregnant women and children under five considered to be nutritionally at-risk.
But does the information get to those who don’t have computers – and does it get to where people are fishing?
Thorp has first-hand experience with the advisories – he worked at the Ohio EPA for five years prior to the Sierra Club. He said the word is not getting out. “We (the EPA) would get half a dozen or a dozen calls per year asking for a copy of the advisories,” he said.
Thorp suggested that health advisories be provided to people when they buy their annual fishing license. He also said signs and in-person outreach are needed to educate shoreline fishers.
“No doubt, we could do a little better job in our communications strategy,” said Scott Nally, director of the Ohio EPA. He did not offer specifics of how Ohio could change its fish consumption advisory program, but said EPA officials are examining other states to see what Ohio might learn.
(Listen to reporter Karen Schaefer’s full interview with Scott Nally)
The Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Public Health and the Department of Natural Resources jointly administer the fish consumption advisory program, testing water samples for mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and pesticides and deciding when and if advisory changes are warranted.
Linda Oros, a spokesperson or the Ohio EPA, who is authorized to speak for ODPH and ODNR, the agencies on the fish advisory committee, said they don’t believe health warning signs would be effective because consumption advisories change frequently, fish migrate from one body of water to another and state agencies do not want to discourage fishing.
She added, however, that “we should always look to improve our commitment to the public, including (using) social media.”
Oros also said the Ohio EPA used to provide advisory information with fishing licenses when they mostly were sold at brick-and-mortar establishments, but these days many fishing licenses are sold online. There is no link to fish consumption advisory information on the ODNR website.
A study in contrasts
While Ohio officials seem reluctant to actively educate anglers about over consumption of fish, the state of Michigan harbors no qualms about such initiatives. In Detroit, advisory signs are placed all along the riverfront and public health workers visit popular fishing holes on a weekly basis to talk to fishermen.
Robert Burns, a Detroit Riverkeeper who has monitored the Detroit River’s health for the past 10 years, said educating people about how much fish and what types of fish they can eat does not discourage fishing – to the contrary, it promotes healthy fish eating among local anglers.
A “Riverkeeper” is an associate of the Friends of Detroit River, a non-profit group that works on water quality issues and maintaining natural habitats in the river. The Riverkeepers work with the Michigan Department of Community Health and other agencies to implement a fish-consumption education program in Detroit.
Part of the education program includes surveying fishers to find out how much they know about the issue.
“From the responses we’re getting to our surveys, the word is now getting out there about fish consumption advisories. People understand it better,” he said. “We’re not out there to scare people – we’re out there to educate people. We promote fishing.”
Cultural and economic concerns
Having information about overconsumption before they start fishing could be helpful to angler families with a long tradition of heading to the lake or river. Often they are people of color; sometimes, they’re people who fish for subsistence.
A 2002 U.S. EPA study examined fishing in communities of color and concluded that over-consumption of contaminated fish is an “especially pressing concern for many communities of color, low-income communities, tribes, and other indigenous peoples, whose members may consume fish, aquatic plants, and wildlife in greater quantities than does the general population.”
A 2012 Cornell University survey of Great Lakes anglers, cited in the journal Environmental Health News, showed that more whites than non-whites were aware of the problems of eating too much fish. The study did not cite specific data for Ohio.
But education about the dangers of eating too much fish still may not be enough to convince some anglers to cut down on their longtime habits.
McGlothan said she’s been fishing since the 50’s, when her husband got out of the Army and the couple ate what they caught for dinner. Fishing is relaxing, she said, and she has more pressing health issues to worry about.
“I hear them saying that it’s got too much this-that-or-the-other,” said McGlothan with a wave of her hand as she prepared to bait another hook. “Well, it hasn’t killed me yet.”
After her afternoon outing with her great-grandson, she planned to return home and clean their catch, fry it and serve it for dinner, just as she does several nights per week.
“I’ve been fishing in the lake a long time,” she said. “I try to fish every day if I can.
Additional reporting by Karen Schaefer.
Mercury, fish and human health:
- Mercury can take many forms (such as the liquid kind found in old thermometers) . The form commonly found in freshwater and saltwater fish is created when microorganisms in the environment convert inorganic mercury into methylmercury.
- Methyl mercury accumulates in the muscles of fish, so the larger the fish, the higher the mercury levels. Big fish that eat small fish especially have higher concentrations of methymercury.
- Methylmercury can easily pass into the developing brain of a young child, or the fetus of a pregnant woman, making them more vulnerable to its harmful effects.
- Extreme levels of methylmercury contamination or poisoning can cause severe health problem such as blindness, deafness, cognitive disabilities, and loss of the ability to control muscle movement;
- In children, high levels of methylmercury can cause development delays. Studies have shown that even in smaller amounts, accumulations of methymercury can affect a child’s behavior and ability to learn, think and solve problems.
- Methylmercury levels generally have decreased in the past 30 years because of environmental restrictions on coal-burning power plants and other factors, but levels of contamination in the Great Lakes, and Ohio’s inland lakes and waterways still are high enough to maintain strong advisories about fish consumption.
Source: The Centers for Disease Control and U.S. EPA
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