Health officials: Don’t eat lake catfish

by Andrew Batten

The state has asked residents to refrain from eating certain fish from Mountain Island Lake due to high levels of PCBs.

On Thursday, Jan. 6, the N.C. Division of Public Health issued a fish consumption advisory for channel catfish and largemouth bass in Mountain Island Lake in Gaston and Mecklenburg Counties. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also issued additional health consumption advisories for Lake Wylie, the Catawba River from Lake Wylie to Fishing Creek, Fishing Creek Reservoir and Cedar Creek Reservoir.

Elevated levels of PCBs were found in channel catfish and health officials are recommending that people avoid eating those from Mountain Island Lake.

PCB testing in largemouth bass from Mountain Island Lake was indeterminate, but state health officials said previous studies have shown that largemouth bass in all waters of North Carolina have elevated levels of mercury.

The advisory comes a year after the federal Environmental Protection Agency released a study showing that more than 13,000 lakes throughout the country have fish contaminated with polychlorinated byphenyl (PCB), the cancer-causing toxin.

Pregnant women, nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and children under age 15 should not eat any largemouth bass.  To guard against mercury exposure and potential PCB exposure, state health officials said other people should not eat more than two meals a month of largemouth bass from Mountain Island Lake. A meal is considered approximately 6 ounces of uncooked fish.

PCBs may adversely impact the neurological development of children, the reproductive system, the immune system, and may cause cancer. Mercury mostly affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, especially in unborn babies and young children. Prenatal mercury exposure can affect the way children think, learn and solve problems later in life. Adverse health effects also can occur in adults at much higher doses.

The PCB and mercury contamination in the fish does not present a known health risk for people engaging in other recreational activities such as swimming, boating or handling the fish.

“These results undoubtedly show us that PCB contamination is a widespread problem in the Catawba River and its lakes,” Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman said. “We need to continue sampling the Catawba from Lake James to Lake Norman and make sure the proper advisories are in place to protect residents from contaminated fish.  Furthermore, the source of this contamination must be found and stopped from further contaminating our river and its fish.”

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation also collected, analyzed and released largemouth bass fish tissue results in June 2010 showing elevated PCB concentrations in Mountain Island Lake.

PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment, but were outlawed in 1977 because of evidence they build up in the environment and could cause harmful health effects. Products made before 1977 that may contain PCBs include old fluorescent lights and electrical devices containing PCB capacitors and hydraulic oils.

Although the chemicals were outlawed more than three decades ago, they have stuck around, said Greg Pillar, a professor of environmental science at Queens University of Charlotte.

“They are extremely persistent, meaning once they are in the environment, whether that is in the air or water, they don’t easily degrade and disappear,” Pillar said.

Fish can come into contact with small amounts of PCBs throughout their lifetime and those PCBs accumulate in their fatty tissue, Pillar said.

Before enacting the advisory for Mountain Island Lake, the state had consumption advisories for seven lakes and creeks across the state because studies found fish high in PCBs. The most recent, enacted in February for Badin Lake in Stanly County, advises residents not eat more than one meal per week of catfish or large mouth bass.

Want more information?
Find more information on the new health advice and related issues at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Fish Consumption Advisories website at www.epi.state.nc.us/epi/fish, or by calling the N.C. Division of Public Health at 919-707-5900.

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