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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Eating fish is good for you, right? Maybe not
For subsistence anglers, mercury is a threat. Do they understand the possible dangers?
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There may be no mercury problem in Madison. But if there is, it could be a whopper for peole who eat too many fish from Madison's lakes.
Credit:Pete Olsen

Dan Torrison has been fishing the Yahara chain of lakes for more than 25 years. "You're never going to hear a fisherman complain about the fishing," he says. "My take is there's fish in here like crazy. I catch perch, bluegills, pumpkinseed, crappies, rock bass, smallmouth bass...." The list goes on.

"If I catch a walleye, I'll fillet it and skin it," he notes. "I probably eat bluegills once a week."

Torrison shows little concern about the possibility he may be exposing himself to mercury contamination. For one thing, the statewide advisory regarding consumption of contaminated fish is more relaxed for healthy adult men. And there is little empirical data quantifying the extent of mercury contamination in fish taken from the Yahara watershed, let alone actual cases of mercury poisoning tied to eating fish from our lakes.

There may be no problem here. But if there is, it could be a whopper for people who eat too many fish from Madison's lakes.

Subsistence anglers are so ubiquitous that they go almost unnoticed. Most are men, with buckets or coolers containing fish they take home to feed their families. Hmong men who return dawn after dawn to fish Monona Bay and the north shore of Lake Mendota. African American families clustered along the Monona Terrace sea wall and at Brittingham Park. Familiar European American faces casting their lines at Yahara Place and Olbrich Park.

A blanket mercury advisory for inland Wisconsin waters has stood since 2000, setting recommended limits for consumption of fish from state lakes and rivers in an effort to reduce the risk of exposure to mercury's potent neurotoxic effects:

- Irreversible neurological damage in fetuses.

- Developmental delays in children.

- Impaired motor skills, mental confusion, blurred vision and hearing loss in adults.

"Here's the science," says Maria Powell, referencing some 50 years of accumulated research into mercury's health risks. "And here are the people. Why isn't the message getting to them?"

A native of Green Bay, Powell has been pursuing this question since 1998, when she and her husband, Jim, moved to Madison. Now a postdoctoral research associate at the UW-Madison's Initiative on Nanotechnology and Society, Maria, 42, took her Ph.D. here in environmental studies, journalism and mass communications. Her thesis: environmental health and risk communication in Great Lakes fisheries. Jim, 45, is the facilitator for the Northside Planning Council.

The couple have launched the Madison Environmental Justice Organization (MEJO) in large part to address the consumption of contaminated fish from the Yahara watershed by low-income populations and people of color. It is a complex socioenvironmental issue.

- If subsistence anglers here are exceeding recommended levels of fish consumption, what is the extent of their risk for neurological damage?

- What are the best methods for surmounting cultural and language barriers to educate the most vulnerable populations?

- How do you best change behavior in these groups?

"MEJO started because nobody was addressing these questions," Maria Powell says, adding that public health and environmental agencies are underequipped to deal with these challenges.

"We think it's a problem, but we don't really know yet, " says Jim Powell "The fish are here. The people are here. The contaminants are here. When you ask people if they want to know what's in the fish, they say, 'Of course we do.'"

Maria Powell warns that several thousand people might be risking their health due to language and cultural barriers. Unwilling to wait for government action, MEJO is conducting a grassroots investigation.

With the help of Kennedy Heights outreach worker Vameej Yang, MEJO has translated a fish-consumption survey into Hmong and is going door-to-door at Kennedy Heights to question residents.

The questions are precise: How many fish does each adult and each child in your family eat each week? How many of those fish do you catch yourself? Where do you catch these fish? What species of fish do you catch and eat? What fish species do you buy at the market? How do you cook your fish? And so on.

Combined with broader testing of hair and blood samples to determine mercury residue, and more widespread testing of fish samples taken from the Yahara chain of lakes, MEJO hopes to compile enough evidence to determine whether a preventable public health risk exists.

Early surveys indicate the effort has merit, with some respondents eating two or three fish meals per week. Bluegill and perch are cited as common species, but bass and catfish also show up. That's a problem. Eating more than one meal a month of bass or catfish exceeds the advisory for women of child-bearing age and children under 15.

Measuring the risk is complicated by the possibility that survey respondents may also be eating store-bought fish tainted with mercury. These complexities demand good scientific methodology and the cooperation of the populations being studied.

But language barriers get in the way. "These families are difficult to communicate with," says Jody Schmitz, the adult outreach coordinator at Kennedy Heights Community Center. This neighborhood is home to one of the city's most concentrated Hmong clusters. And many of Madison's Hmong elders have little or no command of English, relying on their children for translations.

UW-Extension nutrition educator Kazoua Moua encounters two other sources of resistance when she meets with other Hmong women. First, by tradition, the Hmong community does not recognize women as authorities. Second, her advice that pregnant women should limit their consumption of fish contradicts longstanding beliefs that span Asian cultures.

"When I was pregnant," she says, "my Chinese friends would tell me I should eat fish."

Indeed, there is an enormous body of medical literature documenting the health benefits of eating fish. As a rich, low-fat source of proteins, fish also contain Omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to cardiovascular health.

This makes mercury advisories - including recent studies indicating a possible link between low-level ingestion and increased cardiovascular disease in adult males - that much more perverse.

"Telling people not to eat fresh food," Jim Powell acknowledges, "is counterintuitive."

The state Department of Natural Resources has translated the advisory into Hmong as well as Spanish, and has also produced an explanatory video for distribution to Hmong communities throughout the state. "They've been doing good work," says Maria Powell, singling out efforts by Lynda Knobeloch, a research scientist at the state Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, and Candy Schrank, a DNR environmental toxicologist who coordinates the state fish advisory program.

Schrank notes that the DNR works with county health departments to disseminate the advisory to Hmong and other sensitive populations and also publishes it in fishing bulletins and the DNR's fishing regulations booklet. "I talk to fishing clubs," says Schrank. "I talk to anglers."

But the advisory, she observes, is just that: advisory. "There are a lot of health concerns that people have to deal with," she says. "There may be limits to how much information people can absorb." She has a point. Could you ace a pop quiz about every risk associated with everything you swallow? Red meat, eggs, alcohol, cheese, bacon, brats, refined white sugar, assorted oils, nuts, transfats?

There are also limits to the DNR's budget. And with some 15,000 inland lakes and 13,500 miles of navigable rivers and streams to monitor in Wisconsin, testing fish for mercury and other contaminants can be sporadic.

"We may not resample for 10 or 15 years," says Schrank, adding that more frequent testing is conducted on specific northern lakes where there is a history of elevated test results.

"Our message is that there are a lot of fish that people can eat," Schrank says. "But check the advisory and educate yourself."

Meanwhile, Knobeloch and a colleague conducted a statewide methylmercury exposure assessment using data from 2003-05. The study, which had significant methodological drawbacks, analyzed hair samples from 981 men and 1,050 women. Some 29% of men and 13% of women exceeded one part per million - the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's reference dose for chronic toxicity.

Among ethnic groups, Hispanics had the highest mean level for mercury, with 46% testing above 1 ppm, followed by Native Americans (33%), Asians (30%), whites (20%), multiple-race anglers (19%) and blacks (5%). The study shows correlations between hair donors' mercury levels and the amount of fish they consumed. Participants with the least education had the highest mean mercury levels and the highest percentage of hair samples exceeding 1 ppm.

But the participants were self-selecting, and European Americans were overrepresented. Nor was the statewide study localized and specific enough to confirm or refute mercury exposure among subsistence anglers in the Yahara watershed, says Powell.

Yet the study's correlation between ethnicity and mercury exposure - and between education and exposure levels - supports MEJO's contention that further investigation into the vulnerability of Madison's subsistence anglers is merited.

The disparity between groups is troubling, Knobeloch notes, because it gives rise to a distinction between voluntary and involuntary assumption of risk by anglers who understand the advisory and those who don't.

"There are a lot of reasons why minorities don't respond" to the advisory, Maria Powell says. "There's a lot of distrust there." In trying to explain the risks of eating too many contaminated fish, she adds, "I've had a lot of African Americans tell me, 'I'm tired of having people tell me what to do.'"

Pushback crosses ethnic boundaries. My own discussions with subsistence anglers suggest an awareness that the mercury advisory exists, but some confusion regarding its significance - along with varying degrees of wariness at being approached by strangers bearing questions.

One European American with a bucketful of bluegills and perch said he knew about the mercury advisory but wasn't worried about it, because he planned to share these fish with friends at a gathering that night.

Some days later, another white male, this one without a bucket, was catching and releasing fish where the Yahara River empties into Lake Monona. Did he observe the mercury advisory? "Nah," he said: He never ate fish out of Madison's lakes, because of "all the contaminants in the water."

I asked an African American woman if she ate the fish she caught. "Oh, yes," she replied, reeling in a bluegill, unhooking it and adding it to her cooler. How many times per week do you fish? "I don't know." When I mentioned the statewide mercury advisory, she asked me what I knew about the mercury in the lakes. I explained the advisory in general terms. She paused, then talked about how she enjoyed fishing and how quiet it was, in a way that suggested she wanted to be left alone.

Misconceptions about the advisory are rampant. This is borne out in surveys Powell conducted for her thesis. Some respondents indicated they were aware of the fish advisories on local lakes and even followed the advisories, but did not know of any toxins in the lake or of health problems associated with those toxins, and thought the fish they were catching were safe to eat.

"The DNR is supposed to keep it clean," one respondent wrote. "What I don't know won't hurt me," wrote another. "I don't want to know. Don't tell me." Still another indicated they ate two or three panfish a day, every day, and shared the fish they caught with neighbors, friends and family.

Dan Torrison's front porch overlooks the northeast shore of Lake Monona. A native of Manitowoc who grew up casting his line in the Manitowoc River, Torrison is more conversant regarding the mercury advisory than other white anglers I talk to.

Torrison reckons he fishes Madison's lakes about four times a week. Most of the fishing he does is catch-and-release. In spring, he fishes the shallows of Lake Waubesa, which are the first waters in the chain to warm up. Most of the rest of the season, he dons waders, walks straight out his front door across Yahara Place Park and wades into the water to cast his line back toward the rocks along the northeast shore, where the shallow depths catch the most sun, and where weeds make for fine habitat.

"No weeds, no fish," says Torrison, a semi-retired salesman and plumber.

The inventory of fish in Torrison's diet falls within the recommendations of the statewide fish advisory. He says he is not worried about his mercury exposure. He has not sent in a hair sample for testing.

But his neighbors, James and Elaine Papez, did submit locks of their hair for Knobeloch's statewide survey.

"I had a 1.5 on the mercury," says Jim. "I don't know if that's high or low." It is, in fact, above the EPA's one part per million threshold, but not to a degree as extreme as the 15.2 ppm registered by one test subject. His wife "eats almost as much fish as I do," Papez adds, and her test came back at 0.7 ppm.

"We fish in Lake Monona two or three times a week," he says, adding that most of the fish he reels in are bluegills. He reckons he averages about one and a half fish meals per week. And he does not eat much store-bought fish.

Has he noted any neurological symptoms? "No," says Papez. "I can still play a hot hand of bridge." At 81, he adds, one of his biggest problems was finding enough long strands of hair on his head to send in for sampling. And with the results in, he has no intentions to reduce the amount of fish he consumes.

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