Polluted water has caused cancer in huge numbers of fish
by Alyssa A. Lappen
Forbes | Apr. 26, 1986
Vol. 137, No. 8, pp. 124-127
Viewed from shore, Puget Sound’s Eagle Harbor looks postcard idyllic, its wavelets gently lapping the beachfront as gulls bob offshore. But from about 20 feet beneath the surface, a different and completely revolting picture emerges–of a gloppy, creosote-soaked sand bottom that suggests the devil’s own vomit.
In this gunk, which was dumped for years by a local chemical company, English sole must forage for worms. And when researchers haul in the fish and slit open their bellies, they very often find the livers riddled with cancerous tumors.
Cancerous fish have surfaced in epidemic proportions in at least ten fresh- and saltwater shorefronts and estuaries around the country. Up to a quarter of the English sole in 20 areas in Puget Sound are diseased. So, too, are nearly all the saugers, a type of perch that inhabits Torch Lake, Mich. More than 90% of the two-year old Atlantic tomcods that swim in the Hudson River also have liver cancers. Likewise, in Ohio’s Black River tumor-laden catfish are common. And two years ago a quarter of the winter flounder in part of Boston Harbor suffered from liver cancer.
In Massachusetts, where commercial fishing brings in $1 billion a year and saltwater anglers add an estimated $175 million, the public outcry has been intense. “Just about everyone I know has rented a dory and gone out into Boston harbor for flounder, and now the damned things are cancerous,” says Paul Garrity, a former Massachusetts Superior Court judge.
Before he stepped down from the bench in late 1984, Garrity temporarily banned new sewer hookups in the Boston area after the city of Quincy (which is often called “the flounder capital of the world”) sued to force a cleanup of area waters. In response, the Massachusetts legislature promptly set up the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which plans to spend $1.2 billion over 17 years to build a waste treatment plant for the area.
Most humans diagnosed with liver cancer die of the disease within five years, and it is likely that most stricken fish will die premature, too. But is there a demonstrable connection between fish with cancer and human disease? Scientists have not been able to document one yet. But one disturbing study on the matter comes from Greta Fein, a researcher at the University of Maryland, who in 1984 reported that the offspring of 242 women who had eaten PCB-tainted fish for years have measurably slower neuro-muscular reflexes.
Warns Thomas Cameron of the National Cancer Institute: “The correlation between fish cancer and pollution is a red flag that there may be problems for people exposed to these waters by bathing, drinking, and eating the fish.”
If that is so, a grim possibility arises. Recreational fishermen spend an estimated $25 billion each year on the sport. In certain areas, they and the inner-city poor, who fish off piers and bridges and often live on what they catch, may actually be slowly poisoning themselves without even knowing it.
Studies show that many toxins from pollution are collected in the fish organs, which most people don’t eat. But some toxins, such as hexachlorobenzene, chlorinated butadienes and polychlorinated biphenyls, accumulate in both fat and flesh–and thus pass into the bodies of those who eat the fish.
Congress is alarmed. The House Fisheries & Wildlife Conservation & the Environment subcommittee plans to convene hearings in June to raise public consciousness about fish and water pollution. Says Michigan Democrat Dennis Hertel, a committee member, “We don’t want people eating those fish or swimming in polluted water.”
Federal agencies, funded by new research grants, are starting to look for an answer to the dilemma. The Environmental Protection Agency has allocated $14 million this year to assess environmental risks in Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay. Likewise, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has mounted its own effort–an investigation costing $5 million this year alone that will examine correlations between cancerous fish and contaminated sediments in 50 coastal areas.
Early findings offer some clues. Apparently, toxic chemicals that cause mammalian cancer trigger the disease in fish, too, says Donald Malins, director of environmental conservation at Seattle’s Northwest & Alaska Fisheries Center. The fish feed off heavily contaminated sediments that contain large doses of toxic wastes. Time and again, scientists find traces of toxic elements in the gallbladders of fish with cancerous livers.
Environmental problems like these have put industry on the spot. In industrialized Midland, Mich., Dow Chemical began operating a $4.3 million pressure sand filter system last year to remove dioxin from wastewater that flows into Saginaw Bay, where PCB-tained fish have been found. Meanwhile, Occidental Chemical, which makes chlorine, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid at its Tacoma, Wash. plant, has also taken action, reinforcing its chemical storage tanks’ walls and surrounding them with asphalt and concrete dikes to contain spills. “We have a plant full of fishermen and hunters. We’re as concerned about the environment as anyone,” says Occidental plant manager Dave Scholes.
State authorities are trying to enforce clean water laws as best they can. Their efforts are particularly intense in situations in which pollution winds up putting state revenues in jeopardy. Last year the Washington State legislature created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and the state’s Department of Ecology has stepped up enforcement actions by 30% over 1984. Michigan has restricted sales of tainted carp and catfish, and New York State now forbids sale of PCB-tainted striped bass as well.
Meanwhile, in the last five years state authorities elsewhere have closed 11% of the nation’s active shellfishing grounds. Such estuaries are the spawning grounds for more than 65% of commercially valuable species, such as bluefish, snapper and pompano, which inhabit the Gulf and East coasts. Luckily for seafood lovers, and for the $18 billion fishing industry, mature saltwater fish caught for commercial sale live in clean, deep waters and so far don’t show signs of developing cancers.
Under the eye of the EPA, states are charged with responsibility for enforcing existing water pollution laws. In Michigan, where recreational fishing is a $1 billion industry, authorities have slapped Velsicol Inc., BASF, National Steel and dozens of others with nearly $19 million in penalties, much of it relating to water pollution, since 1982. Even so, because EPA regulations don’t cover them, small businesses that dump into sewers, such as textile mills and commercial laundries, continue to pollute unchecked. More research is necessary before firm conclusions can be drawn as to whether cancer in fish is a harbinger of disease in humans or simply a warning of developing environmental danger. Either way, the threat is obvious, and foot-dragging is risky.
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