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Wild Chinook Salmon Becoming Tainted with Toxic Chemicals


Tainted chinook found in wild

Fish testing shows wide spread of chemicals used as fire retardant

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


The king of fish -- wild chinook salmon -- is turning up tainted with
industrial-strength fire-retardant chemicals in the Pacific Northwest,
showing just how far the compounds have spread in the environment.

Wild chinook tested in Oregon and British Columbia had levels of the
chemicals -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs -- that were as high
or higher than farmed salmon, according to a global study released today.

The research was the latest blow to the good-for-your-body reputation of
salmon, which is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A prior
study by the same researchers recently found troubling levels of PCBs, a
known carcinogen, in farm-raised salmon.

Although PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, have been banned for decades,
their chemical cousin, PBDEs, are still in production around the world.
Bans in Europe, California and Maine will kick in over the next few years,
and U.S. manufacturers voluntarily are stopping production of some forms of
the fire retardant.

For now, though, PBDEs are still being added to a long list of common
household and workplace items -- from computers and other electronic gear
to foam seat cushions and synthetic fabrics.

And evidence is mounting that the chemicals in the products are being
released into the environment at an alarming rate.

The toxicity of PBDEs isn't fully understood, but the fish-contamination
study concerns health officials and environmentalists.

"The bottom line here is pointing out ... we have a problem with PBDEs,"
said Rob Duff, director of the Washington Health Department's Office of
Environmental Health Assessment. "They're rising in the environment. The
levels are getting up there."

PBDEs can harm neurological development and function in babies and young
children -- just like mercury and PCBs, Duff said.

Besides chinook, other locally caught wild salmon -- coho, chum, sockeye
and pink -- generally had lower levels of the fire retardant than their
farmed counterparts, according to the study.

Among the farm-raised salmon tested, Washington fish were the least
contaminated, with concentrations of the chemicals at slightly more than 1
part per billion. That's lower than the same fish tested in Europe, Canada,
the East Coast and Chile. The highest levels were in Scotland, where the
fish tested at almost 4 ppb.

On average, wild fish were less contaminated, with two exceptions: chinook
from Oregon and British Columbia, which tested at more than 2 ppb and 4
ppb, respectively.

It's unclear exactly how the PBDEs leach out of products, but they've have
been turning up in everything from household dust to women's breast milk.

"Add this study to the mounting evidence that shows the PBDEs are in the
environment and moving up the food chain," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of
People for Puget Sound, an environmental group.

The results being published today in the Environmental Science and
Technology journal come from a continued analysis of the 2 tons of fish
examined in the PCB study.

In both studies, the scientists generally found that farmed fish were more
contaminated than wild fish. But the fact that the local chinook were as
contaminated with PBDEs as the farmed variety "was a real surprise to us,"
said the study's lead author, Ronald Hites, a professor at Indiana

Studies of Puget Sound chinook and coho also have shown levels of PCBs on
par with farmed fish.

Besides Hites, the study involved researchers from Cornell University, the
University at Albany, the Midwest Center for Environmental Science and
Public Policy and AXYS Analytical Services.

The source of PBDE contamination is likely the salmon's food. Farmed fish
eat a fish meal made from ground-up smaller fish, and chinook also eat
smaller fish. The other salmon species generally eat lower on the food
chain, feeding on jellyfish and plankton. Pollutants such as PBDEs, PCBs
and mercury tend to build up in animals, concentrating in organisms higher
on the food chain, such as orcas and people.

Unlike other pollutants, there are no dietary recommendations restricting
how much PBDE is safe for people to eat.

Health authorities and scientists urged people to continue eating fish,
which is a good source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.

PBDEs and PCBs concentrate in the fatty tissue of the fish, so removing the
skin and using cooking methods that allow fat to drip off can reduce

People can follow state and federal dietary recommendations based on
mercury and PCB contamination in fish and generally will be protected from
the harmful effects of fire-retardant chemicals, Duff said.

European countries already have banned two of the main forms of PBDEs, and
U.S. manufacturers have promised to take them off the market by the end of
this year. That leaves one form -- deca PBDE -- still in production.

The forms of fire retardants most frequently found in salmon were the ones
slated for phase-out, said Peter O'Toole, spokesman for the Bromine Science
and Environmental Forum, an organization representing chemical

"The logical projection is the levels will decrease over time."

Research on laboratory animals has shown that PBDEs can disrupt thyroid
hormones, which can affect the developing brain and have other harmful
effects. Newborn mice exposed to PBDEs have learning and motor-skill
problems. At least one form of the chemical is known to be carcinogenic.

It appears that the flame retardants naturally and gradually leave the
human body over time.

Next month, the state Ecology Department plans to release a draft version
of a plan to reduce PBDEs. Public comment will be accepted for 30 days
after that.

"These things shouldn't be out in the environment when we don't know what
their effects are," Sager-Rosenthal said.

P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or

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