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Originally published May 16, 2014 at 4:51 PM | Page modified May 19, 2014 at 4:51 PM

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Guest: Protect water and health by updating state’s fish-consumption rate

Washington state should make water-quality standards more protective of health by adjusting the fish-consumption rate, according to guest columnists Frank James and Catherine O’Neill.

Special to The Times


GOV. Jay Inslee is currently considering how much fish Washingtonians may safely consume — a question that will, in turn, determine how protective our state’s water-quality standards should be.

As professionals who have worked for two decades with people impacted by contamination in our fish, we see this as a serious question.

Washington’s current water-quality standards permit people to safely eat just one fish meal a month. Those of us who eat more fish than this do so at our own peril.

Eating fish is the primary way that humans are exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs), mercury and many other toxic pollutants. These chemicals cause cancer, permanent neurological damage and other harms.

Although Washington’s Department of Ecology is poised to update its current standards, it remains to be seen whether the new standards will be more protective by requiring the water to be clean enough for people to eat fish more than once each month.

If it isn’t contaminated, fish is an excellent source of protein, omega fatty acids and other nutrients. Doctors would like to see people eat more, not less, fish.

At present, however, Washington waters are too contaminated with toxic pollutants to support healthful fish intake. Fish consumption advisories now warn people to avoid eating several fish species from water bodies throughout the state. The only way for our fish to again become safe to eat is to keep the toxic contaminants out of our waters. And the linchpin for cleaner water is stricter water-quality standards.

The Department of Ecology has recognized the need to base its updated standards on an increased fish-consumption rate. This higher rate is premised on the fact that people in Washington actually eat more fish than the state’s current standards assume.

Washington residents’ high intake has been documented in numerous, peer-reviewed studies. The scientific evidence for increasing the fish consumption rate has mounted since the first of these studies of local populations was published in 1994. The state’s current water-quality standards, in contrast, are based on a study of the U.S. population back in 1973-1974. The state’s data are now 40 years old.

It is past time for an update.

If updated standards are based on a higher fish-consumption rate, however, they would need to become more stringent. Recognizing this implication, the governor is considering a proposal to offset the increased fish-consumption rate by decreasing the level of protection from cancer to be achieved by the standards. That is, the state may simply decree that Washingtonians find it acceptable to be exposed to a tenfold greater risk of cancer. The more cancer the state is willing to tolerate, the less protective the water-quality standards need be.

How would this proposal affect the standards, on balance?

According to the Department of Ecology’s calculations, a tenfold increase in the risk level would result in significantly less stringent standards for dozens of chemicals. For these pollutants, people could safely eat even less fish than the meager meal-per-month currently protected by the state. This is a move in precisely the opposite direction from that recommended by public-health experts.

The harms of such a decision by the governor, moreover, would be shouldered disproportionately by those among us who eat the most fish. In Washington, these groups include Native American tribes, Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, other immigrant groups and low-income people. This would be a grave environmental injustice.

The state should set water-quality standards that allow all of us to eat fish from Washington waters, including recreational anglers who catch fish in our lakes, rivers, and bays, and tourists who order local seafood in our restaurants.

We hope Inslee takes seriously the question before him. And we hope he gives an answer that allows us all to put fish on our tables — without a side of toxic pollutants.

Frank James is the health officer for San Juan County and teaches at the University of Washington. Catherine O’Neill teaches environmental law and Native American law at Seattle University.

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