Putting consumption advisories into Perspective:

Perspectives on risks from eating hatchery fish with low levels of PCBs


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The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission sometimes get requests to put into perspective the risks of eating trout or other fish found to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  These questions are most often asked when Pennsylvania issues consumption advisories at the one-meal-per-week or one-meal-pre month level.  Consumpton advisories are not regulatory standards;  they are information tools designed to help anglers plan their consumption of sportfish.  Consumption advisories focus on pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children, as well as those who consume larger quantities for fish containing elevated levels of PCBs for extended periods of time.

Pennsylvania is the only state to regularly test its state hatchery fish for PCBs and announce advisories under the Great Lakes Protocols. More has been done in Pennsylvania to look at this issue than anywhere else. This means that Pennsylvania anglers can be assured that our state hatchery fish are safe to catch, safe to handle and safe to eat in moderation consistent with consumption advice.

Considered alone, concepts like "safety" and "danger" can be hard to quantify. Everyone faces hazards each and every day. There are some situations many of us consider to be inherently dangerous - a volcanic eruption for example . Other risks we take for granted, such as riding a bike. Yet you are far more likely to to die riding a bike than you are to ever experience - let along die - as a result of a volcano erupting. To put the risks associated with eating trout with low levels of PCBs  into context, let's follow a typical angler on a routine fishing trip.

Our angler gets up early in the morning, before sunrise. Slipping out of the covers, he steps out of bed (the odds of getting out of bed, falling and suffering a fatal skull fracture have been calculated at 1 in 20,000). He showers (the lifetime death risk of dying in the bathtub are 1 in 12,800) and shaves (the odds of injuring yourself while shaving seriously enough to require medical attention are 1 in 7,000).Going downstairs, (the stairs are considered the riskiest part of the house with some 2,000,000 Americans taking a serious fall each year) he heads for the kitchen.

Household accidents are widespread and the kitchen is common location (small kitchen appliances and ovens account for almost 97,000 injury accidents each year according to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission). Our angler eats a hearty breakfast (lifetime odds of choking to death = 1 in 1,087) that includes eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, hot cakes, syrup and coffee. There are health risks associated with many foods. This includes the risks related to heart disease, cholesterol, high blood pressure and many others (according to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 2,000,000 fatalities annually).

Our angler hops in his car and drives down the interstate to pick up his fishing before heading to their favorite stream deep in the woods (in 1997, 41,967 people were killed in the estimated 6,764,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes; 3,399,000 others were injured -- US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Our angler parks and hikes about a mile through the woods with his buddy. Although snake bites and other woodland accidents are rare, there are some risks associated with these activities (in fact, the National Safety Council computes your odds of dying by reaction to venomous animals, insects or plants are 1 in 51,265).

When the angler gets to the stream, he pulls on his waders, enters the stream and begins to fish. Slipping while wading is a common occurrence. Most of the time, the response is to get up, have a laugh and keep fishing. Sometimes, though, injuries occur (in general, falls kill some 15,000 Americans per year. Another 3,500 die in submersion drownings -- National Safety Council).

 To dry off, our fearless angler and his buddy light a fire (more than 1,700,000 burns occur in the United States each year). The anglers wash a sandwich (odds of death from eating peanut butter are 1 in 3,300) with a six pack of beer and each smokes a couple of cigarettes. Whoa! Alcohol and tobacco are the subjects of health warnings that are much stronger than any consumption advisories associated with PCBs in fish (based on research from the American Cancer Society, each year smoking, claims more than 400,000 lives in the US).

Assuming nothing drops on them along the way (odds for a fatality caused by falling objects is 1 on 4,400) they're able to walk back to their cars. They drive home, taking all the same risks they took getting to the stream. To finish a fine day in the outdoors, our angler enjoys with a meal of fresh caught trout. The point of all this is that we all take some "risks" everyday.

 Eating his catch of trout with low levels of PCBs
is probably one of the least risky things our angler did this day.

But why take any risk? Shouldn't fish and all foods be free of any PCBs? The complete elimination of all PCBs from fish would be ideal. Unfortunately, PCBs are very persistent and widespread. Although their manufacture was discontinued more than 20 years ago, trace levels of PCBs remain in the environment. Regardless of whether or not you ever eat fish, you have likely already accumulated some PCBS in your body. Michigan State University's Institute for Environmental Toxicology notes that, "small amounts of PCBs can be found in almost all outdoor air, in indoor air, on soil surfaces, and in surface water" and "nearly everyone has been exposed to PCBs because they are found throughout the environment, and nearly all persons are likely to have amounts of PCBs in their blood, fat, and breast milk that can be measured."  Furthermore, avoidance of consumption of fresh fish (even those with low levels of PCBs) may divert a consumer into eating other foods, most of which carry some health risks of their own.  There is literally "no free lunch" when it comes to facing risks in all we do.

By issuing consumption advice for sports fish, Pennsylvania and other Great Lake States are going beyond what is done with other foodstuffs. The intent is not to scare or alarm, but to allow an informed public to make educated decisions. The Fish and Boat Commission believes strongly that anglers and others who eat fish should be informed when there are findings of low levels of PCBs of fish. The information we provide should be used by individual anglers to evaluate their own situations and determine the proper course of action for themselves. All fish should be thoroughly cleaned and cooked. Those who wish can further reduce there lifetime exposure by voluntarily reducing their consumption of fish.

The Bottom Line is clear: No one should be frightened to go fishing and have fun. And no one should be afraid to eat their catch in moderation. Fishing is a safe sport, and consuming fresh fish is a healthy thing to do.

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