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Concern over Great Lakes fish will remain even after current toxins fade

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Concern over Great Lakes fish will remain even after current toxins fade



October 8th, 2009

Steve Orr / Democrat and Chronicle



New York’s advisories on consumption of Lake Ontario fish are based on chemicals that, for the most part, were banned decades ago and are increasingly rare in the environment.


If current trends continue, officials say, the advisories based on those legacy pollutants can be moderated in the not-too-distant future.


But that doesn’t mean that fish will be deemed entirely safe to eat. Lurking in the background are a variety of other contaminants that can accumulate in Great Lakes fish.


“We know of other compounds that are likely out there,” said Larry Skinner, who heads environmental monitoring in the fish and wildlife division of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.


At the top of this list, said Skinner and others, are polybrominated diethyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are flame retardants that were added to plastics used in electronics, furniture foam, textiles and other products. The sole U.S. manufacturer ended production of most forms of PBDE in 2004, but they remain ubiquitous in the environment.


“We know the concentrations in water from Lake Ontario increased exponentially, which was reflective of usage in industry,” Skinner said.


Comparable to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in terms of their ability to persist in the environment and accumulate in fatty tissue, PBDEs have been found in Great Lakes salmon, trout and walleye. There is concern they may prove every bit as toxic as PCBs as well.


The DEC does not test fish for these compounds. Federal officials do limited monitoring, and the state hopes to pursue a federal grant to begin PBDE monitoring of its own, Skinner said.


Officials at the state Department of Health, which issues fishing advisories after reviewing DEC data, said they probably would not issue an advisory based on PBDEs — based on what’s known today about the compound.


“That’s the problem — there’s not a lot of data on PBDEs, and not as much toxicity information to help us decide what levels are of concern,” said Edward Horn, director of environmental health assessment for the state Health Department.


Horn said there were other chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, perfluorinated compounds and the common anti-bacterial agent triclosan — that may build up in fish and bear watching.


“There’s no question that a lot of these chemicals are of concern,” he said.


One reason that New York has a statewide advisory against eating more than one meal a week of sport fish is the potential impact of these emerging compounds, he said.


Only two other bodies of water in the Rochester region have their own advisories — Keuka Lake in Yates and Steuben counties, where consumption of larger lake trout is limited to one meal a month because of DDT levels, and Canadice Lake in Ontario County, where there’s a similar limitation on eating larger lake trout because of PCBs. Both advisories are due to improper disposal of those chemicals discovered decades ago near the lakes, Skinner said.


PCBs are the primary driver of the advisories on Lake Ontario. While their manufacture and new use were banned in 1970s, PCBs remained in place in electrical and other equipment and likely are still entering the lake’s ecosystem in small doses, Skinner said.


Their level in fish has fallen sharply since the 1970s, and the levels of PCBs, and other legacy pollutants, are now well below guidelines for fish set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


But Horn said the agency uses a cautious approach. “We might not change an advisory … until we’re really sure that this isn’t something that hasn’t just happened this year,” he said.

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