More contaminants may be added to Great Lakes fish consumption advisories

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Every Great Lakes state warns people about eating toxic fish but officials are examining the risks of contaminants that aren’t covered under current advisories.

All eight states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York – pool resources from their health, environmental and natural resource agencies to issue fish consumption advisories. The group is dubbed the Great Lakes Fish Consumption Advisory Consortium.

Most state advisories spell out the risks of PCBs, mercury, dioxins and chlordane, which are contaminants found in some fish that can cause health problems.

Yellow perch. Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

But that may need to expand, said Bruce Lauber, a senior research associate at Cornell’s Human Dimensions Research Unit, which recently studied state fish advisory programs across the Great Lakes.

“There are a number of emerging contaminants and they (Great Lakes states) might want to develop advisories for those, too,” Lauber said.

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and toxaphene are two contaminants that the consortium is looking into, said Pat McCann, fish advisory program manager with the Minnesota Department of Health.

PFCs are used in many consumer products and food packaging. Animal studies have shown PFCs to cause liver and kidney damage and reproductive problems.

Toxaphene is an insecticide that damages the immune system, nervous system and lungs, and can cause cancer. Toxaphene is mostly a concern in Lake Superior, McCann said.

While these contaminants have health implications, the consortium usually evaluates risks for contaminants that are in all the lakes.

“We’re (the consortium) less likely to develop protocols for toxaphene, because they’re (protocols) mainly for chemicals that are an issue in every lake,” McCann said. “PFCs may not be an issue that every state has to deal with, that’s something we need to figure out.”

Minnesota has developed protocols for PFCs, which Wisconsin uses, said Candy Schrank, environmental toxicologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Officials use protocols to document the science available for chemicals, including potential risks. Not all states have the same protocols.

“We also have protocols for PCBs, dioxin and mercury,” Schrank said. “We want to provide a consistent message, but each state varies when it comes to level of contaminants (in their waters).”

Angela Minicuci, public information officer with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said in an e-mail that if Michigan officials find an increased risk they  “investigate it and then it may be added to the Michigan Fish Advisory.”

The report is part of a complete assessment of Great Lakes fish consumption advisories funded by the U.S. EPA. Authors also recommended that states use similar messages to avoid confusion.

Lauber said there are some message inconsistencies from state to state.

“They’re trying to communicate the same messages with different words,” Lauber said. “Women of childbearing age, for example, are a particularly vulnerable group and different states describe the group differently.”

Schrank said that awareness among target populations (anglers, women of childbearing age, children) is typically high according to surveys.

McCann said surveys show that approximately 50 percent of respondents are aware of the advisories.

“We’d like to know more about that,” McCann said.

And they will. The next step is to work with anglers, vulnerable populations and other Great Lakes residents to study how the advisory messages are received, said Jeff Niederdeppe, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and co-author of the report.

State officials were amenable to the recommendations, Niederdeppe said.

“They’re (state officials) involved from the beginning,” Niederdeppe said. “When we develop reports … have focus groups … they comment and provide feedback along the way.”

And, for the most part, the consortium does a good job, Lauber said.

“The group has a long history of working well together,” Lauber said. “They all want the same thing … people to eat fish and enjoy recreational fishing, but to also make good choices about the fish they eat.”

(Featured image: fish stray cat via Flickr)

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