By DANIELLE WOODWARD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Health authorities in Michigan are waiting for the results of tests for elevated levels of chemicals and metals in people who eat lots of Great Lakes fish.
Blood and urine from volunteers in Michigan and two other states were tested for PCBs, pesticides, mercury, lead and cadmium.
Each state focused on a community. Michigan tested anglers along the Detroit River and Saginaw Bay.
Minnesota tested members of the Ojibwe tribe near Lake Superior. New York tested licensed anglers and Burmese refugees and immigrants along the Buffalo River, Niagara River, Eighteenmile Creek and the Rochester Embayment on Lake Ontario, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which organized the project.
Those groups were chosen because of their heavy dependence on fish for food, said Phil DeFoe, the bio-monitoring project manager for the Ojibwe tribe.
The three-state program is part of an attempt by the federally funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to find out how chemical and metal levels in people who eat lots of fish compare to the national average.
“Nothing has ever been done as far as I know with tribes and levels of environmental contaminants, and this was an opportunity for both entities to do something and get baseline data,” DeFoe said. “Since we are so dependent on our environment for fish and hunting, this will be extremely useful.”
While all the results aren’t back, increased levels of mercury already have been found in Michigan participants.
“The average blood mercury levels in our participants that eat a lot of fish are about three times the average published in the National Health and Nutrition survey” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Linda Dykema, Michigan’s director of environmental health.
Those who volunteered in Michigan’s study were mostly men. But if women of childbearing age have similar blood mercury numbers, there could be cause for concern for children they give birth to, Dykema said.
The news isn’t all bad, DeFoe said.
Mercury and lead levels in Minnesota fish eaters were lower than the U.S. and Canadian averages, he said.
DeFoe said he believes the different results could be due to some major differences in sizes of the lakes tested and the closer proximity of Michigan lakes to industrial communities where pollution is more likely.
“We tested the lake that had the highest levels of fish consumption,” DeFoe said of the testing in Minnesota. “If that lake would have been the St. Louis River, those are the people who would have shown higher levels of contaminants. Most people are educated and know which lakes are safer to get their fish from.”
The St. Louis River is the second-largest tributary to Lake Superior. In 1987, the lower portion was named a Great Lakes Area of Concern due to extensive contamination.
Dykema said participants in Michigan’s study had to be 18 or older and eat more than two meals of fish from the Great Lakes each month. Participants averaged 11 meals of fish per month.
Testing began for all three states in January 2013.
The Minnesota Health Department tested 491 members of the Ojibwa tribe, DeFoe said. New York participants had to be 18 or older, have a state fishing license and eat fish caught in the Great Lakes.
What started in 2010 as a three-year project was extended and has become a five-year project, Dykema said.
“We started our fieldwork in the spring 2013,” she said. “We do not have all of the data back from the laboratories yet.
“The first step is to let participants know what their levels of each thing are and how they compare to the national average,” Dykema said.
There is no official level of contaminants that makes a person sick, she said. The department will counsel the public on how to make better choices on fish consumption.
And DeFoe said, “The biggest thing for us is coming up with an action plan and educating our members. All we have to go on is our blood levels, and our biggest message right now is to eat fish but safely and abide by the health department and tribe fish advisories.”
Danielle Woodward writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By DANIELLE WOODWARD