Mercury-And-Fish-Contamination Stories Dominate Recent Coverage

May 15, 2006


The Chicago Tribune's series of mercury in seafood (see page 1) was not the only fish story in the news in the past several months. Stories about the safety of seafood ran across the United States and Canada.

Jerry Hirsch of the Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 27 that shoppers who browse the seafood counters at Holiday Quality Foods' 19 grocery stores in rural Northern California find a new Safe Harbor brand, the nation's first line of low-mercury fresh fish.

The label is part of a market test by the supermarket chain and Pacific Seafood Group, one of the nation's largest fish wholesalers, to see whether customers would buy more fish if they had more information about its mercury content. Holiday is using a new technology, developed by a high-tech company in San Rafael, Calif., that takes just minutes to measure the mercury concentration in fish rather than days.

Marla Cone, also of the Los Angeles Times, reported on Feb. 9 about a new study of more than 6,000 people who sent hair samples to researchers to provide insights into the extent and causes of mercury contamination. "Experts say that mercury exposure has little to do with proximity to pollution sources. Instead, it is determined by diet. Mercury concentrations in the study were strongly linked to how frequently the volunteers ate fish and other seafood, a finding that has been documented in other studies worldwide," Cone wrote. For volunteers who ate no fish, the average mercury level in hair was 0.06 parts per million, while those who consumed eight or more servings per month averaged 0.90, just below the federal government's health guideline of 1 part per million.

Mercury wasn't the only question being raised about fish safety.

Peter Calamai of the Toronto Star wrote about the conflicting messages on eating salmon. "Science can't seem to decide. A new report from U.S. researchers concludes that, for most people, the potential cancer risks of eating salmon containing toxic chemicals outweigh the benefits gained from also consuming the fish's heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids," he wrote on Jan. 6. However, on the other hand, the risks from eating salmon may be worth it for people who are prime candidates for heart attacks, the detailed report in The Journal of Nutrition also concludes, he wrote.

And, Lynette Wilson of the Pensacola News-Journal wrote Dec. 27 that mullet caught throughout the bay system tested above federal-health safety levels for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The highest levels were found near a proposed $800,000 habitat-restoration project, according to researchers at the University of West Florida.

Wilson quoted Dick Snyder, an estuarine and marine ecologist working on a study at UWF's Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, as saying, "The mullet was a big surprise for us, not just in PCB concentration but because of the amount consumed locally… There's not a single sampling location in the bay system that doesn't exceed the health-safety level."

Warren Cornwall of the Seattle Times wrote Feb. 16 about the results of state health officials' testing of fish bought in groceries – and raised some more red flags. Some fish sold at Washington groceries contains so much mercury or PCBs that people should limit their consumption, a study by the state Department of Health has found.

Even so, the first state survey of grocery fish also found that many other kinds of fish are safe to eat in moderate amounts, and state health officials highlighted that in a continued push to get people to eat fish regularly, Cornwall wrote.

"Fish are great food. We want everybody to be eating the recommended two meals a week. But there are contaminants," said Jim VanDerslice, a Health Department epidemiologist.

Fish, of course, live in water and there were a lot of stories on its quality.

A joint effort between a science-writing class at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and the Lincoln Star-Journal is looking at the threats to the Platte River. Carolyn Johnsen, the teacher, said each year the school "does depth reports on a timely topic. With the drought gripping the state, water issues were making frontpage news almost every day. With much of the state's irrigated farm land located in the Platte Valley, water issues related to the river made a logical choice for an in-depth report. " The newspaper's "editors enthusiastically backed the idea and offered to send reporters to edit the science-writing class. That arrangement offered students opportunities to talk with working reporters as peers – a good motivation to get the students involved in the project," said Johnsen, who had covered the environment for Nebraska Public Radio for 10 years.

Students "learned about the topic, learned to report as a team and had lots of pride in seeing their stories published in the newspaper." The project continues and can be found at: reports/platte_river.

Brian Rademaekers of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on water pollution from trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals flushed down toilets or flowing from farms' animal waste. "Until recently, those pollutants had been virtually undetectable because the concentrations are so low. But instruments now can identify substances in parts per trillion – each part equivalent to a grain of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool," he wrote on Feb. 27. The Philadelphia Water Department is participating in a $1 million national study to measure pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in drinking water, he reported.

Four of the nation's top 10 chicken producers have virtually ended the practice of feeding broiler chickens low doses of antibiotics to make them grow faster and stay healthy, reported Elizabeth Weise of USA Today.

In a Jan. 24 story, she said Tyson Foods, Gold Kist, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms said they stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion. The four companies also have severely limited antibiotic use for routine disease preven- tion, though antibiotics are still used to treat disease outbreaks.

Martin Mittelstaedt of the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote that despite decades of effort cleaning up the Great Lakes, industrial discharges of water pollutants into the lakes are rising in both Canada and the United States. A new report from Environmental Defense and the Canadian Environmental Law Association said between 1998 and 2002, discharges rose 23 per cent at U.S. companies and 13 per cent at Canadian ones, according to the story that ran Feb. 10.

Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote about the dirty waters of Virginia's rivers. Nearly twothirds of the river miles the state monitored are polluted. The General Assembly plans to consider creating a steady source of money to clean the rivers and the bay. The projected cost: $2.3 billion over several years, he wrote Dec. 22.

Perry Beeman of the Des Moines Register wrote Dec. 30 that state environmental officials knew for seven months that livestock manure was polluting several creeks that feed the water supply for the metro area. But until four manure spills in two weeks, one which caused a fish kill along 15 miles of one stream, state investigators said they were nearly powerless to do anything to stop the polluters. The spills were traced to several small cattle feedlots suspected of not having adequate manure-holding structures.

Sally DeFreitasand and Jeff Alexander of the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan wrote about how a new arsenic standard for community drinking water supplies is causing problems for hundreds of municipalities, schools, mobile home parks and businesses. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 450 of the state's 3,000 regulated water systems exceed the new arsenic standard. One, the village of Pentwater, found meeting the standard would cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars, they wrote on Jan. 23.

David Nakamura of the Washington Post continues to follow the issue of lead in the drinking water supply. On Jan. 26, he wrote the EPA has been slow to force states to collect and report required data on lead levels in drinking water. It has little information on schools and child-care facilities, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. The study found that the EPA's database does not include recent test results on more than 30 percent of community water systems and lacks some data on more than 70 percent. The problems in data collection "may be undermining the intended level of public health protection," the GAO said.

Peter Lord of the Providence Journal reported on Feb. 23 that a jury in Rhode Island has found three paint companies liable for hundreds of millions in potential health damages to residents in thousands of homes. The three companies made leadbased paint years ago. Sherwin Williams' stock plunged almost 18 percent by the end of trading on Feb. 22, he reported. Lord has been following lead paint litigation for several years.

Tammy Webber of the Indianapolis Star continues to cover air pollution problems in that town. On Feb. 10, she wrote that emissions from a Citizens Gas & Coke Utility plant near an eastside school raise the long-term odds that nearby residents will develop cancer, according to state environment officials. The study found that most of the risk comes from benzene. Breathing the chemical over a long period of time has been linked to leukemia and lung cancer. The study was prompted by concerns about potential health effects of the coke plant on children attending Indianapolis Public School 21, next to the plant.

Dina Cappiello of the Houston Chronicle reported that air-pollution monitors show 11 hot spots in the Houston area, including places like the Lynchburg Ferry, which people use to commute. There and elsewhere the levels of toxic chemicals in 2004 exceeded state odor thresholds or health guidelines, according to the latest air pollution data from the state. Most of the hot spots are along the industrial Houston Ship Channel. "There, concentrations of hazardous air pollutants recorded by state monitors reached levels high enough to create sickening odors or increase the chances of getting cancer if an individual were exposed over a lifetime," she wrote in early January.

Meanwhile, several reporters around the country wrote about EPA's proposal to relax reporting of pollutants by cutting back the annual Toxics Release Inventory to once every two years. Tom Meersman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote that several dozen Minnesota companies would no longer need to file detailed annual reports about hazardous chemicals they use or emit, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) officials.

Lois M. Collins of the Salt Lake City Deseret Morning News wrote about what many see as the death of the National Children's Study. She said that Salt Lake City was one of the sites for the study, which "may be dead before the first child is enrolled." The president's FY2007 budget doesn't contain a penny for the study, which would be the first large-scale longitudinal study of children's health issues in the nation's history. The budget not only has no funds, it directs that the study be closed down, Collins wrote Feb. 8. Congress created the study in 2000. The study was to enroll about 100,000 children from before birth to age 21, tracking psychological, social, environmental and genetic factors.

Robin Lord of the Cape Cod Times wrote Feb. 12 about a state health department report on childhood cancer in Sandwich and announced it was launching a more thorough probe into unusually high rates of the disease in the town. Activists who pushed for the study felt both a victory and anger that it took so long. Two women documented childhood cancer cases all over the Cape in the past few years.

Christine Stapleton of the Palm Beach Post wrote about pesticide exemptions in Florida, where emergencies are declared to allow use. Critics say "the socalled emergencies aren't really emergencies and the state agency responsible for protecting the public, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, rarely inspects how growers use the unapproved pesticides," she wrote on Dec. 19.

On Dec. 13, the New York Times' Gina Kolata wrote about the difficulty of pinning cancer on trace levels of poisons in the environment or even in the work place. There has been recent progress in addressing the issue, but the answers that many people believe must be out there remain elusive.

A Mississippi judge dismissed 4,202 claims of a rare occupation-related respiratory disease after a federal judge from Texas questioned diagnoses in those cases and others, wrote Jerry Mitchell in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on Dec. 5. The order signed by Noxubee County Circuit Judge James T. Kitchens left the silicosis claims of 79 plaintiffs remaining from litigation filed by the Campbell Cherry law firm from Waco, Texas, he reported.

A lot of reporters wrote about plans by the Bush Administration to sell off more than $1 billion in public lands over the next decade. Janet Wilson of the Los Angeles Times wrote on Feb. 11 about the plan, which includes about 85,000 acres of national forest in California. She wrote that Congress must approve the plans, which several experts said would amount to the largest land sale of its kind since President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and created the modern national forest system.

Diane Jennings of the Dallas Morning News wrote on Feb. 3 about drought in East Texas. Despite a weekend of light rain, the diagnosis for East Texas was upgraded from "extreme" – the worst rating on the Palmer Drought Severity Index – to merely "severe." Annual rainfall maps show much of the region was 20 inches or more below normal in the past 12 months.

Cheryl Hogue of Chemical & Engineering News wrote Feb. 27 about the newest international environmental agreement, completed in early February, which lays out how chemicals can be managed safely. While this voluntary accord is aimed primarily at developing countries that lack established regulatory systems, the deal may factor into future international trade disputes. For instance, the European Union might cite its compliance with the agreement as it defends its tough new regulatory system for chemicals from an expected attack by the United States at the World Trade Organization. The Bush Administration, backed by some factions of the chemical industry, fought hard to prevent the chemicals management accord from factoring into trade disputes. See it at: h t t p : / / p u b s . a c s . o rg / c e n / g o v e r n - ment/84/8409gov1.html

Tom Henry of the Toledo Blade reported Jan. 21 that FirstEnergy Corp.'s nuclear subsidiary will pay a record $28 million fine to avoid being criminally prosecuted for lying to the government about the dangerous condition of Davis- Besse's old reactor head. U.S. Attorney Greg White said the subsidiary gets 60 days to pay that amount. It must cooperate with the government in the prosecution of three former Davis-Besse employees who have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of making false statements to a federal agency. The $28 million fine is in addition to a $5.45 million civil penalty from April 2005, which the company already has paid. The latter had been the largest fine ever imposed in U.S. nuclear history until the new fine. Neither of those fines can legally be passed on to ratepayers, Henry wrote.

David R. Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the resurgence of nuclear power on Feb. 12. "Credit a strange mix of politics and environmental desperation," Baker wrote. He outlined how the nuclear industry has found allies in environmentalists concerned about global warming from greenhouse gases. "There's no way that solar panels or windmills can do it themselves," said Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace who now runs an energy consulting firm and works with nuclear industry groups, Baker quoted.

At about the same time, also on Feb. 12, Mark Bixler of Cox News Service wrote one of several stories about evangelical Christians and their role in fighting global warming – and how the issue is creating a split in their ranks. Eighty-six prominent evangelicals urge the federal government to curb emissions blamed for climate change. Other leading evangelicals say scientists disagree about global warming.

Alexander Lane of the Newark Star-Ledger also wrote about the issue on Feb. 12.

On Feb. 16, Antonio Regalado and Jim Carlton of the Wall Street Journal wrote that after a growing outcry from climate researchers in its own ranks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration backed away from a statement it released after last year's powerful hurricane season that discounted any link to global warming. "The change is part of a high-stakes fight over the issue of global warming, and what some scientists complain is a widening gap between what their research shows and White House climate policy," the reporters wrote.

Paul D. Thacker wrote a story in The New Republic exposing Steven Milloy, science columnist for Fox News and proprietor of Milloy has written numerous columns blasting the science and scientists who have found that smoking is bad for you. Thacker found a Philip Morris budget document from 2001 that showed Milloy has been a consultant for them. Thacker confirmed with Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, that Milloy was a company contractor until Dec. 31, 2005. The story ran Feb 6.

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia has been writing about mine safety since the nation's attention was captured by the Sago coal mine disaster. On Feb. 5, he wrote that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration ignored a 1969 federal law authorizing – and encouraging – it to require mines to install rescue chambers with air and food supplies.

Robert McClure of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer wrote about how the failure of upwelling ocean currents may be causing a disruption in the food supply for seabirds. Breeding failures in the summer were preceded by tens of thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon and California, he wrote on Jan. 30. For example, at Washington's largest colony of glaucouswinged gulls, where 8,000 chicks normally fledge, only 88 did last year.

Curtis Morgan of the Miami Herald wrote about some of the changes – and conflict – that are part of a plan to restore the Everglades. He focused on plans to change a canal called C-111 that had helped drainage but made some bays too salty and some waters too fresh and helped dry out parts of the gigantic wetland system.

He wrote on Feb. 12 that the South Florida Water Management District is preparing to fix the C-111 with a $40 million diversion designed to restore natural flows into the bay. But some activists argue a potential rerouting of an environmentally friendly replacement canal and other cost-cutting changes will compromise a key part of the $10.5 billion Everglades restoration project.

The Orlando Sentinel ran a five-day series, "America's Battered Gulf," on the health and future of the Gulf of Mexico. It began Dec. 11.

In part 1, writers Michael Cabbage and Kevin Spear looked at how a series of whether it is wise to extend oil drilling activity, with the tanks and refineries that come along with it, to be closer to Florida.

Other parts looked deeper at oil production and chemical plants that dot the rim of the gulf could affect the ecosystem, the impacts of coastal development, and how storms can impact the economy.

Other writers included Jim Stratton, Tim Barker and Joe Newman.

Hurricane Katrina follow-ups continued along the Gulf Coast. Mike Keller of the Biloxi Sun Herald wrote on Jan. 18 that eight plants that handle hazardous waste or chemicals and were directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Coast did not release those chemicals into their surroundings, according to a new EPA report.

Investigators took soil and sediment samples around the eight sites and compared the amounts of chemicals in those samples to known levels before the storm. They also compared the results to guidelines developed for lifelong exposure deemed by officials to be safe for people, he wrote.

Jim Bruggers of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal wrote on Feb. 21 that the federal government is looking around for sites to locate a replacement of the nation's premier animal disease lab at Plum Island, off the coast of Long Island. A number of states are expected to seek the new lab, which would likely be for studying the riskiest of diseases, those needing what's called bio security level 4. Kentucky and Tennessee were the first to come forward with a proposal, which would be located in Kentucky near the Tennessee border, in the congressional district of the politically powerful Rep. Hal Rogers, he wrote.

On Feb. 8, Ben Shouse of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus-Leader wrote about South Dakota's first biodiesel plant, which sits in a former corn storage barn. The plant's components include a boiler from a defunct dog track, some obsolete dairy tanks and at least four items scrounged on the Internet. Fifty-three other U.S. plants already make soy biodiesel, a renewable fuel that can be used in any diesel engine. An equal number are in the works, according to the National Biodiesel Board, he wrote.

Mike Dunne is associate editor of the SEJournal and reports for The Advocate  in Baton Rouge, LA

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

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