Rachel's Democracy & Health News #890, January 18, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A new government report on the Great Lakes says the system for regulating toxic chemicals is "inadequate" and needs to be replaced by a precautionary approach because large numbers of humans are in danger. Both the U.S. and Canadian systems for controlling toxic chemicals have failed.]

By Peter Montague

The system for regulating toxic chemicals has failed in the Great Lakes and a precautionary approach should be adopted, according to a new report [6 Mbyte PDF] published by the International Joint Commission (IJC), the U.S.-Canada governmental body responsible for water quality in the Lakes. The IJC was created by treaty in 1909 and has focused aggressively on water quality since 1978. The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world's fresh surface water.

The Major Justification for Precaution: Ignorance Abounds

IJC scientists, and independent researchers, are now reporting a host of new toxic chemicals in fish and other wildlife in the Great Lakes. However, "Insufficient data are available to establish consumption guidelines for these toxic substances," the report says. (pg. 115) [Page numbers inside parentheses refer to the IJC report.]

After 30 years of under-funded effort, the government agencies charged with protecting public health remain ignorant about most of the chemicals being discharged into the Lakes:

"Due to analytical limitations, only a very low proportion of the large number of potentially troublesome compounds identified as likely present in the Great Lakes environment are currently analyzed in Great Lakes monitoring programs," the report says. (pg. 124)

Even the industries producing the chemicals are ignorant of their effects: "Industry's capacity to invent and produce new chemicals has overwhelmed both their ability to produce adequate data for the regulatory system to assess, and the regulatory system's capacity to assess it," the report says. (pg. 125)

Both the U.S. and Canadian systems for regulating chemicals stand accused of failure.

The report was written by the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the Great Lakes Scientific Advisory Board, the International Air Quality Advisory Board, and the Council of Great Lakes Research Managers and was published in June, 2006, by the International Joint Commission (IJC).

Unfortunately, the IJC's withering criticism of the chemical regulatory system is buried deep in the report, in chapter 5, "Human Health," where many readers may miss it.

Chapter 5 makes these points:

1. Legacy Toxicants Are Declining Slowly, If At All

As time passes, "legacy" chemicals (mainly PCBs and mercury) in the Great Lakes are declining much more slowly than expected. In fact, mercury is not declining at all -- it is holding steady or, in some places, even increasing because of coal-burning power plants. (pg. 115)

2. A New Set of 'Emerging' Toxicants Has Been Identified

Meanwhile, a new set of "emerging" contaminants has appeared in the Lakes during the past few years (pg. 124):

** Brominated fire retardants (BFRs), PBDEs and tetrabromo bisphenol- A;

** Perfluorinated compounds or PFCs (PFOS, perfluorooctanoic acid, N-ethyl perflourooctane sulfonamidoethanol);

** Phthalates (a large class of plastic additives);

** Pharmaceuticals and chemicals found in personal care and household products (PPCPs);

** Estrogenic and hormonally active compounds (birth control agents, natural estrogens, alkylphenol ethoxylates, bisphenol-A, Trenbolone); and

** Some currently used pesticides (Atrazine). (pg. 124)

3. 'Persistence' Has a New Meaning

The IJC report says pharmaceuticals and personal-care products are "persistent by virtue of their ongoing release into the environment in human and animal excreta" -- in other words, even though individual chemicals may degrade, they enter the Lakes in a steady stream, so they are constantly available for uptake by fish and other wildlife.

4. New Hazards Are Being Identified for Old ('Legacy') Toxicants

In addition to these newly-discovered "emerging" contaminants, a host of new information about harm to wildlife and humans has become known:

The IJC report notes that, "The National Research Council (NRC) [in 2000] concluded that 'the population at highest risk is the children of women who consumed large amounts of fish and seafood during pregnancy.' Its report concluded that the risks to that population are likely to result in an increase in the number of children who have to struggle to keep up in school, and who might require remedial classes or special education." (pg. 117)

The IJC report estimates that as many as 15% of all pregnant women in the U.S. may have sufficient mercury in their blood to produce children burdened by cognitive deficits.

And the report says no amount of mercury can be considered safe: "There is no evidence to date that a threshold blood-mercury concentration exists where effects on cognition are not seen." (pg. 118) In other words, any amount of mercury causes some cognitive damage.

5. Fish Are Too Dangerous for Children & for Women Prior to Menopause

For the first time, this IJC report recommends that fish-consumption advisories should warn all children, and women younger than the age of menopause, to not eat ANY fish from the Great Lakes "as an option." (pg. 128) It is not clear what "as an option" means -- but the rest of the phrase is clear: the authors of the IJC report are saying for the first time that the health benefits of eating Great Lakes fish are now outweighed by the cocktail of toxic chemicals the fish contain.[1]

This is a major and very far-reaching recommendation from the IJC Science Advisory Board. The Great Lakes commercial and sport fisheries are valued at $4 billion per year and support thousands of jobs.

6. Men, too, should restrict their intake of Great Lakes fish

** Mercury consumption is now associated with high blood pressure, heart-rate variability, and heart attacks. (pg. 118)

** New data from the laboratory of Ellen Silbergeld at Johns Hopkins Medical School suggests that mercury can cause an autoimmune reaction that damages the heart, autoimmune myocarditis. In autoimmune myocarditis, the body's own immune system attacks the heart muscle and can ultimately cause heart failure.

The report concludes, "These findings suggest that future fish-consumption advisories in the Great Lakes region, which are largely issued to protect women of child-bearing age and children, may need to be extended to other segments of the population (such as adult males, etc.)." (pg. 118)

In other words, the population of people who can safely eat most Great Lakes fish is essentially zero.

7. New health effects discovered from eating Great Lakes fish

Birth defects

According to one study, eating two meals of Great Lakes fish per month is sufficient to increase the number of serious birth defects: "Among the 2,237 infants born to female members of the New York State Angler Cohort between 1986 and 1991, there was an increased probability of a major malformation (including hypospadias, cleft palate, and musculoskeletal defects) in males but not females, whose mothers consumed two or more sport fish meals per month during pregnancy." (pg. 119)

Breast Cancer among Pre-Menopausal Women

One study showed that young women eating Great Lakes fish have a 70% increased risk of breast cancer: "McElroy et al. (2004) found an increased relative risk of developing breast cancer of 70 percent in pre-menopausal Wisconsin women who recently consumed Great Lakes sport-caught fish." (pg. 120)

Immune system impairment in children

Children have an increased incidence of inner ear infections, and of asthma, from exposure to common contaminants in Great Lakes fish -- PCBs, DDT and its breakdown byproduct, DDE, and hexachlorobenzene. The obvious suggestion here is of immune system damage. (pg. 120)

The report emphasizes again and again the dangers to children posed by eating fish from the Great Lakes: "Researchers are discovering an increasing suite of behavioral abnormalities in infants and children and in laboratory rodents prenatally exposed to environmentally relevant concentrations of PCBs or mercury." (pg. 119)

8. Fish Consumption Advisories Don't Protect Public Health

The IJC report seems schizophrenic on the question of fish consumption advisories as a way of protecting the public from eating contaminated fish. On the one hand, as we have seen above, the report recommends fish advisories containing tougher language: children and pre- menopausal women should be advised to eat NO FISH from the Great Lakes "as an option" (whatever that means). On the other hand, the report acknowledges that fish advisories don't reach the people most endangered by Great Lakes fish -- subsistence fishers:

"While advisories provide excellent advice, they have limited effectiveness, in part because they focus on sport fishing. Subsistence fishers who depend on Great Lakes fish to feed their families often eat species that are not covered by advisories. In addition, the current emphasis on sport fishing tends to target male sport fishers rather than subsistence fishers, many of whom are women and minorities. These latter groups are largely unaware of the dangers of contaminated fish." (pg. 121)

Could it be more plainly stated? Fish advisories are ineffective. To prove the point, the IJC report says that, before fish advisories were initiated in 1994, a survey was taken of fish consumption. After 8 years of publishing extensive fish consumption advisories -- warning people which fish to avoid eating in specific waters of the Great Lakes -- a second survey showed that, "the numbers of individuals consuming fish and the amount of Great Lakes sport fish consumed had not decreased." (pg. 122)

The IJC then turns about-face and says, "Fish consumption advisories can only be regarded as a limited and temporary solution for public health protection." (pg. 122) To be blunt about it, this is nonsense. If eight years of fish advisories have not changed the number of people eating Great Lakes fish and have not changed the amount of fish they eat -- and if fish advisories don't even reach the subsistence fishers, who are women and children and who are most endangered -- then fish advisories can only be regarded as a failure.


The report says, "The issues associated with 'legacy' and 'emerging' contaminants of concern and the contaminant-associated health effects described in [chapter 5] are, to varying degrees, surprises, in that they highlight the short-sightedness of our profit-driven approach to innovation, and the inadequacy of our hazard-based regulatory system." (pg. 126)

Instead of an "inadequate" regulatory system based on risk assessment, the IJC report recommends a new approach, based on precaution:

"A much more precautionary, responsive, and democratic approach is clearly required," the report says. (pg. 125) And: "Other jurisdictions widely apply the Precautionary Principle to stimulate innovation and science, and provide good governance," the report says. (pg. 126)

[To be continued next week.]


[1] The exact wording is: "The Science Advisory Board recommends to the IJC that... The Parties modify their fish consumption advice to address overall fish consumption to focus on... Promoting special precautions for pregnant women including effects on the fetus, women of child-bearing age, and children under 15, and advocating that this group adopt the additional prudence of not eating Great Lakes fish as an option;"