The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent report on the health of fish in the Columbia River Basin was scary reading.
Although the report focused on the health risks to tribal members -- who traditionally eat more Columbia River fish than other citizens -- the document ought to concern anyone who values eating fish out of the big river. Isn't that virtually all of us?
If fish in the region are laden with contaminants, there's a good chance human health risks are also increasing, whether you eat fish or not. If our fish have toxic chemicals in their tissue, that means toxic chemicals are loose in our rivers.
The EPA's study was a "preliminary survey of toxic chemicals in fish from the Columbia River Basin." The samples that formed the basis of the study came from areas used for tribal fishing in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
True, the sampling came from a small representation of the river. Only 208 fish were collected at 24 different sites over a 16-month period in the late 1990s.
But the list of fish tested was extensive: chinook salmon, steelhead, smelt, Pacific lamprey, rainbow trout, mountain whitefish, white sturgeon, walleye, and suckers.
More ominous, the EPA tested for 131 dangerous chemicals, and found 92 of them among the fish that were tested. Present in fish tissue were pesticides, PCBs, DDT, and dioxins. Additionally, arsenic was found in the anadromous fish.
For humans eating fish contaminated with these chemicals, the results could include harm to their immune system, stunted development, and damage to the liver. Cancer risks were also higher, and grew exponentially with increased consumption of fish.
That's why, as a group, Indian tribal members were found to be most at risk. For example, cancer risks among Columbia Basin tribal members who consume fish daily have cancer risks that may be as much as 50 times higher than for those who consume fish about once a month.
Some of the sites tested were right in our immediate neighborhood: the Bonneville pool and The Dalles pool of the Columbia River, the Klickitat River, and the Deschutes River.
The Washington Department of Health says potential health risks can be reduced by trimming fatty tissue off fish before eating it and cooking fish longer to burn off fat. The fatty areas on the fish tend to be where toxic materials accumulate.
That might help, but it's not much consolation.
Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, put the situation in perspective: "The health of our fish tells us what the health of our rivers and the regions are," Hudson said.
He's absolutely right. If eating fish that are native to our region can drastically increase health risks for local citizens, we all ought to consider that a serious warning.
This report provides yet another reminder that we need to quit using our rivers as dumping grounds.