The state of Iowa is failing to warn people to cut back on eating locally caught fish contaminated with mercury and other pollutants at levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds too risky, an IowaWatch study has found.

More than 330,000 people a year buy licenses to fish Iowa’s waters, and the contaminated fish many catch, eat and provide to their families and friends could pose serious health consequences, especially for children, women of child-bearing age, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.

Southeast Asians and Hispanics dominate another high-risk group – people who make fish from the state’s rivers, streams and lakes a staple of their diet. But conservation officers say few people, especially minorities, know about the contaminated fish advisories state officials periodically issue. They are written only in English.

Fetuses, infants and children are particularly vulnerable; they have more years to develop mercury toxicity and accumulate toxins, said Dr. Laurence Fuortes, professor of occupational and environmental health and internal medicine at the University of Iowa.The EPA says long exposure
to low levels of mercury can harm cardiovascular and immune systems. At higher levels, it can cause neurotoxicity, or a severe impairment of the nervous system, and potentially death. Fetuses exposed to mercury can develop mental retardation, cerebral palsy and deafness. Even at low doses, mercury can lead to cognitive disabilities in children and adversely affect heart and immune systems.

Yet fish are rich sources of low-fat protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, a fact that has experts debating whether health risks from long-term consumption offset the health benefits. So, consumers face a major health choice. Should they follow Iowa’s advisories, which tolerate more contamination in fish but increase access to a healthy food? Or should they put more faith in the more restrictive EPA guidelines?

The EPA doesn’t force states to abide by its guidelines; so policies differ. Iowa does less to protect citizens from contaminant exposure than do bordering states of Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Missouri. But it’s more protective than South Dakota, which uses a system Iowa abandoned in 2006.

DNR and the Iowa Department of Health acknowledge Iowa’s advisories are up to 10 times less protective than some neighboring states’ but say its system is good.

Until prompted by the Iowa Environmental Council in 2005 to tighten restrictions, Iowa permitted contaminant levels three times higher than it does today. That lower standard is still used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in regulating fish sold in interstate commerce.

Patricia Boddy, DNR’s interim director, didn’t respond to IowaWatch’s requests for comment. Kevin Baskins, DNR’s spokesperson, noted that FDA’s looser restrictions permit fish in grocery stores that could have more contamination than Iowa allows in fish from lakes and rivers.

Iowa uses “the best science available in determining fish advisory levels,” he said. But he acknowledged Iowa has not subjected its advisory system to independent scientific review, as have other states with more protective advisories, such as Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Stuart Schmitz, a Department of Public Health environmental toxicologist, called EPA guidelines “super-protective” and says Iowa is “on par or more restrictive than some states, especially states to the west.” Iowa fish are safe to eat “as a general rule of thumb,” he said.

Iowa wants to increase fishing and encourage people to eat locally caught fish as a lean source of protein, said Schmitz, who helped draft the current advisory protocol. He said fishing encourages time outdoors, exercise, family time.

Schmitz says health and regulatory agencies disagree about the risk and benefits of eating fish, but he believes the benefits “probably outweigh any risks” from the chemicals in fish.

That opinion mirrors a controversial position that the FDA took in a January 2009 report, which the EPA sharply denounced.

“EPA has serious fundamental concerns on the underlying science and methodology used by the FDA,” wrote Denise Keeher, director of the Standard and Health Protection Division.

Which side is right still is debated.

The risks versus benefits of eating contaminated Iowa fish have not been seriously looked at, said Fuortes, the professor of occupational and environmental health and internal medicine. But he said policy makers can establish policy that takes uncertainty into account.

“When there is an unknown, you try to develop public policy to protect the maximum number of people that is economically and rationally possible,” he said.

In Iowa’s locally caught fish, mercury, PCBs and the pesticide chlordane cause most concern. Chlordane, banned in 1989, and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used widely in industry until 1977 and are considered by the EPA to be probable human carcinogens. Mercury ¬– a natural element – becomes an industrial pollutant when emitted by power plants burning fossil fuels such as coal. Mercury then falls into bodies of water and enters the aquatic food chain as methylmercury.

Mercury probably causes the greatest concern in Iowa, said John Olson, a DNR water quality assessment specialist. While chlordane and PCB levels have declined dramatically in Iowa and the U.S., mercury contamination levels persist. Bass, walleye and other predators carry higher levels of mercury, because they eat small fish already contaminated with mercury.

The DNR website does not emphatically warn that low-level mercury exposure poses health risks. Instead, it says: “There is also some evidence suggesting lower-dose exposures can have cardiovascular and immunological effects, but good epidemiological data is lacking.”

Crafting Iowa’s Current Advisory System

Questions about Iowa’s fish consumption advisory system are not new. Several years ago, the Iowa Environmental Council found that nearly a quarter of 103 fish samples collected by the state between 2003 and 2004 carried mercury levels EPA standards said posed health risks to people eating more than an eight ounce meal once-weekly. Yet, Iowa’s advisory system issued few public warnings, and Iowa was one of only six states that did not issue any advisories for mercury-contaminated fish in 2003 and 2004.

In 2005, the Council urged state DNR and health officials to reform fish advisories, which had followed FDA guidelines saying people could eat fish without limit if its tissue contained less than one part per million of mercury but not to eat any if it contained more. The health department and DNR studied the system for Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.

The three state’s system – known as the Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory – assigned fish to five levels, each tied to the amount of contamination in fish. Fish with the least contamination were safe to eat without restriction. At the second level, the states advised you not to eat fish more than once weekly. As the level rose, the recommended frequency for eating fish would decline to once a month, then to one meal every two months and finally to the fifth and most dangerous level – don’t eat the fish.

“We felt in Iowa that was a little complicated and more levels than we wanted to deal with or that people needed to know about,” Schmitz said.

In 2006, the health department and DNR settled on a hybrid of the EPA and Great Lakes advisory. But in 2007, Iowa weakened its system by allowing 50 percent more mercury contamination before triggering advisory to reduce consumption.

Now, for an eight-ounce fish the EPA would say is too contaminated to eat more than once every two weeks, Iowa would say: eat all you want.

For fish that Nebraska would restrict to one meal a week, Iowa would have no restriction.

In a similar fashion, the three bordering Great Lakes states and Missouri also have advisories triggered by lower contamination levels [see mercury levels bar graph].

Today, Iowa has advisories for 11 water bodies [see chart]. In comparison, Wisconsin has 148, in addition to a statewide advisory that provides safe-eating guidelines.

“Our advice is based on protecting people,” Candy Schrank, a Wisconsin DNR toxicologist, said. “We don’t think we’re being too protective.”

“If Iowa’s fish have the same concentrations of the different contaminants as Wisconsin fish, then in general Iowa’s advice would promote more frequent consumption for the mid-range contaminant levels,” she added in an email.

Schmitz said he recognizes some states think Iowa isn’t protective enough.

“I disagree with that. I think we’re still within several orders of magnitude [of safety] when we know the risk,” he argued.

“The view that the most restrictive approach is the best approach is nearly as scientifically naïve as saying that the least restrictive approach is the best,” he wrote in a response to IowaWatch.

In an interview, Schmitz said, “The important thing in my mind is not necessarily the levels but the message that needs to be communicated.”

People should know fish provide lean protein and carry low levels of chemicals, which accumulate in predator fish, he said. “If you’re at all concerned about those levels, you would want to avoid eating larger predator fish.”

According to EPA, in the absence of a local advisory, consumers should cut consumption of non-commercial fish, not just predator fish, to one meal weekly as “a baseline of protection.”

But Olson, DNR’s water quality specialists, says stricter advisories may cause some people to become “panicked” and mistakenly think something is wrong.

“These are very low level contaminants based on a lifetime of consumption,” he said, adding that people might opt for unhealthy processed foods if fish advisories became too strict.

If too many people stopped fishing, the budget for the Fish and Wildlife Trust would take a hit.

Fishing and hunting license fees, fines and federal grants go to the Trust, which funds the Fisheries Bureau. In 2009, the Iowa DNR sold 367,882 fishing licenses. From Dec. 15 through Aug. 30 this year, it sold 332,004.

The DNR and health department deny that reliance on fishing license fees and fines for its budget creates undue pressure to issue fewer advisories.

Fisheries Bureau chief Joe Larscheid said, “Anything negative is a concern of course, but it’s not a big enough issue I think to affect [the advisories].”

Iowa’s Advisory System: “A one-size fits all …”

Advisories in Wisconsin are “geared to protect an individual based on their eating habits,” Schranck said.

In contrast, Iowa “opted for the simple solution: a one-size fits all, middle-of-the-road approach” for issuing advisories, according to Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

It assumes all Iowans only occasionally eat locally caught fish, she said. But, certain ethnic and socioeconomic groups fish a lot, and fish become a significant part of their diet. Yet, fish consumption advisories usually don’t reach them.

“We have not looked in great detail at subsistence fishing that may be practiced by small segments of our population,” Schmitz said in an email.

DNR conservation officers acknowledge that many people who fish, particularly those in minority groups, have little awareness or concern about advisories.

Jeffrey Felix, 52, a Filipino immigrant from Iowa City, is among a self-described group of “regulars” who spend much of their free time fishing the reservoir at Coralville Dam.

One sunny fall morning, he was trying his luck for catfish in the tail water below Coralville Dam.

Felix fishes about three times a week, mostly for food, and most people he sees do the same, he said. He doesn’t worry about eating from the reservoir.

“They tell you if something’s going to happen, if people get sick,” he said. “But since I [sic] been down here, I haven’t heard anything about it. I expect all, everything’s safe.”

Unlike Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa’s advisories are only available in English on the DNR website and in fishing regulation pamphlets at license dealers.

“We haven’t looked at other mechanisms of getting this information out,” Schmitz said.

Brad Koppie, conservation officer for Buena Vista and Cherokee counties, works in Storm Lake, which has experienced rapid influx of Hispanics, Latinos and Asians in recent years. In the 2000 census, Hispanics and Latinos comprised 21 percent of the population, and Asians comprised 8 percent.

Statewide, the population is 93 percent non-Hispanic white.

Koppie spends much time talking with fishermen, looking at their catch, getting to know them. He said many Laotians, Cambodians and Hispanics fish Storm Lake and make up the majority of sportsmen. They know little about fish consumption advisories, he said.

“Hook-and-line-caught fish are probably a pretty good portion of their diet. They consume a large amount of rough fish, carp, buffalo, things like that.”

One of Koppie’s concerns is that while a Hispanic newspaper circulates, communication avenues with Asians don’t exist. “When the word gets out in English, I don’t know if it gets to them,” he said.

Mary Skopec, DNR’s ambient stream monitoring coordinator, said “for those groups, I think an advisory is almost meaningless.”

Skopec suggested an education campaign on fish consumption for vulnerable populations that would try to change behavior rather than reform an advisory no one listens to.

“I’m not sure we’re always effective at engaging the public,” she said.

(Gabe Gao, a masters student at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is the health and medical writer for the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism)

In Iowa, fishing is not just a rural past-time. As the Iowa River flows through the University of Iowa, two fisherman, who say they eat their catch, try their luck beneath the Burlington Street Bridge and talk about what fishing means to them. This video was co-directed by Alejandro Muzzio and Lauren Chase, as part of a multimedia ethnography class at the University of Iowa.

Jim Xiao, 36, of Cedar Rapids, and his father, Lao Xiao, caught this bucket of crappie in the tailwater below the Coralville Reservoir dam one morning. Lao Xiao calls it a day after catching a bucket-full of crappie with his son.

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  1. “I’m not sure we’re always effective at engaging the public,” she said. Then why in the hell don’t you make it ABSOLUTELY apparent in Spanish?

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