Study Finds High Toxins in Wash. Fish

A state Department of Ecology study has found that fish in the Spokane River have the highest concentrations of toxic flame retardants of any freshwater fish in Washington state.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A state Department of Ecology study has found that fish in the Spokane River have the highest concentrations of toxic flame retardants of any freshwater fish in Washington state.

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are chemicals used in electronics, plastics, building materials and textiles that build up in fish tissue and in the human body, including the breast milk of nursing mothers. They can cause neurological damage in babies.

"Fish from the Spokane River have the highest values of PBDEs found in Washington state to date," according to a September 2004 report from Ecology's toxics monitoring program.

The fish, sampled in 2001, had PBDE levels measuring 1,250 parts per billion. By comparison, salmon from a tributary of industrial Lake Michigan had PBDEs ranging from 44.6 to 148 parts per billion, the Ecology report says.

No one's sure why the levels are so high in the Spokane River.


"It's odd that we have that kind of high hit in the Spokane River," said Rob Duff, environmental health director for the state Health Department.

The state is moving to ban most dangerous PBDEs.

There are no fish consumption advisories anywhere in the country for PBDEs, because there's still not a lot of good data about what levels are harmful to people, Duff said.

"The concern is that these flame retardants are behaving like PCBs," Seiders said.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used in transformers and other industrial equipment until they were banned in the late 1970s. They're classified as a probable human carcinogen, and recent studies have shown that fetal exposure can lead to learning and behavior problems in children.

Ecology's study also found PCBs in rainbow trout in West Medical Lake, and dioxins in mountain whitefish in Lake Spokane.

Dioxins, byproducts of pesticide manufacturing and pulp and paper bleaching, can cause cancer and put breast-feeding infants and unborn children at risk of behavioral disorders.

Ecology started its Olympia-based Environmental Assessment Program monitoring program in 2001 because of growing concerns about toxic chemicals that accumulate in the food chain, said Keith Seiders, an author of the report, which analyzed some 140 fish samples collected statewide from 14 sites.

The Spokane Regional Health District was notified of the report's findings in a recent e-mail from an Ecology employee, said Michael LaScuola, a hazards adviser for the health district.

PCB levels in West Medical Lake fish were 36 parts per billion, comparable to levels in Puget Sound, Duff said.

PCBs could have leached from a defunct sewage treatment plant the county shut down in the mid-1990s or could have already been in the hatchery fish when they were placed in the lake, LaScuola said.

"I have no idea what the origin of the PCBs is. The fish don't survive there long because the lake is routinely stocked and heavily fished," he told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review.

The Health Department has not yet decided whether a public warning is warranted.

When Spokane River fish caught above Upriver Dam at Plante's Ferry Park were tested for PCBs, their mean level was an alarming 880 parts per billion, Duff said.

"Those are the PCB levels that get us excited," Duff said.

An advisory already in effect warns people not to eat any fish caught between the dam and the Idaho state line.

But because West Medical Lake is a popular fishing spot each spring, health officials may issue a new warning.

"We'll have to take a closer look if there are people eating huge amounts of fish there," Duff said. The department may to remind the public how to cook fish to remove the oily parts where PCBs accumulate.

More tests are planned on fish in West Medical Lake later this year.

Ecology's study recommends that waterways with the newly detected contaminants should be placed on a revised Clean Water Act list of impaired waterways.

The fish data have been provided to the Ecology group that handles such listings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the final say.

Source: Associated Press