CPR's Catherine O'Neill in Seattle Times: Protect water and health by updating state’s fish-consumption rate

by Erin Kesler

May 19, 2014

Today, the Seattle Times published an op-ed by CPR scholar and University of Seattle law professor Catherine O'Neill with University of Washington professor and public health officer Frank James entitled, "Protect water and health by updating state’s fish-consumption rate."

According to the piece:

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.

Professor O'Neill has recently blogged on Washington State's Department of Ecology's potential move to weaken water quality standards in the region, thereby affecting the ability of tribal communities to have access to their native diets.

She noted:

And play is precisely what industrial polluters and their consultants do, as they take aim at each variable, with the ultimate goal of weakening the resulting water quality standards.  I have discussed some of these efforts in the Pacific Northwest here and here, as well as here.

The latest tactic - advanced by an industry consultant - and currently embraced by Washington’s Department of Ecology as its “preferred approach” – is to alter the standard assumption for adult bodyweight, increasing it from 70 kg to 80 kg. This change to Ecology’s (and EPA’s) longstanding practice was suggested on the theory that tribal people, on average, currently have a higher bodyweight, i.e., 79 kg or 81 kg, according to two recent surveys in the Pacific Northwest. The “average American,” too, it was suggested, is currently heavier than in prior years.  The difference in the resulting water quality standards as a consequence of this change?  The standards would be roughly 10% - 15% less protective. 

Which means that the fish will be that much less safe to eat – or, to put a finer point on it:  tribal people seeking to put a healthy, uncontaminated meal of fish on their table will be able to do so less often.



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Also from Erin Kesler

Erin Kesler was a Communications Specialist for the Center for Progressive Reform.

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