Contaminants found in Nottoway fish

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 14, 2007

FRANKLIN—Mercury has made its way into the Nottoway River in concentrations that have led the Virginia Department of Health to warn people against eating large quantities of fish caught there.

The Nottoway now joins the Blackwater and Meherrin rivers on the list of local bodies of water that are subject to the consumption advisories because of high levels of mercury or PCBs.

&uot;We want to protect people from adverse health effects of these contaminants,&uot; said Dr. Khizar Wasti of the health department’s Division of Environmental Epidemiology.

&uot;Fish consumption advisories alert people of contaminants present in the fish and the potential health effects that come from eating those fish, but do not prohibit people from eating fish. The advisories are intended to help people choose fish wisely.&uot;

The department advises people to restrict their intake of various fish species caught in the three rivers to no more than two meals including eight-ounce servings of fish per month.

Affected species include largemouth and smallmouth bass, bowfin, redhorse suckers, longnose gar, channel catfish, chain pickerel and sunfish taken from the Nottoway River; largemouth bass, redear sunfish, bowfin, chain pickerel, white catfish, redhorse sucker and longnose gar taken from the Blackwater; and gizzard shad taken from the Meherrin River.

The health advisory also expands the already-existing Blackwater River advisory to include its tributaries &uot;due to the swamp-like conditions occurring throughout the watershed and mercury deposition via air, which may be impacting the watershed,&uot; according to a press release announcing the advisory.

&uot;It is a shame that it appears that the mercury problem is getting worse,&uot; commented Jeff Turner, who leads the Riverkeeper program for the Blackwater Nottoway Riverkeeper Program.

Mercury advisories are now in effect for a 92-mile stretch of the Nottoway River encompassing parts of Greensville, Sussex and Southampton counties; and a 100-mile section of the Blackwater River and Blackwater Swamp, ranging through Petersburg, Prince George, Sussex, Surry, Southampton, Isle of Wight, Franklin and Suffolk.

A PCB advisory remains in effect for a 28-mile section of the Meherrin in Greensville and Southampton.

High levels of mercury or PCBs in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm their developing nervous systems, according to the health department. Because of those risks, women who are pregnant or who may soon become pregnant, as well as nursing mothers and young children, are warned not to eat fish from the affected rivers.

According to the health department, the contaminants build up in fish tissue over time to levels much greater than the level of mercury or PCBs in the surrounding water, so the danger is confined to eating the fish. Therefore it still is safe to swim or ski on the rivers.

&uot;Recreational use of water in these rivers and lakes does not pose any risk of exposure to mercury or PCBs,&uot; Wasti explained. &uot;We encourage people to continue to fish and enjoy the waters for recreation.&uot;

The state agency offered some tips for reducing one’s potential mercury exposure:

• Eat smaller, younger fish (within the legal limits), as they are less likely to contain harmful levels of contaminants than larger, older ones.

• Eat fewer or smaller servings of fish.

• Try to eat different species of fish from various water sources.

• Cleaning or cooking contaminated fish does not eliminate or reduce mercury.

Taking the following precautions can reduce the levels of PCBs in fish:

• Remove the skin, the fat from the belly and top and the internal organs before cooking the fish.

• Bake, broil or grill on an open rack to allow fats to drain away from the meat.

• Discard the fats that cook out of the fish.

• Avoid or reduce the amount of fish drippings or broth that are used to flavor the meal.

• Eat less deep-fried fish, since frying them seals contaminants into the fatty tissue.

Turner, the Riverkeeper, said in an email message that he was especially concerned about the advisory’s effect on poor people in the area.

&uot;A lot of people from this area supplement their food with fish they catch, especially the poor,&uot; he wrote, noting that predator fish such as the Bowfin had some of the highest concentrations of mercury among the fish that were sampled — as much as four and five times higher than what the state recommends.

Turner blamed the problem on coal-fired power plants, which release mercury into the air. He said mercury levels dropped substantially in the Everglades when the state of Florida shut down nearby &uot;dirty power plants.&uot;

&uot;If we cleaned up the dirty plants in Virginia, we would see a reduction of this contamination,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s a fact.&uot;