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Thousands eating contaminated Anacostia River fish

At least 17,000 people in the lower Anacostia watershed eat fish from the river every year. These fish spend years swimming in polluted water and resting and feeding amidst sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Anacostia Park, June 2012. Photo by the author.

This contamination is very likely ending up on people's dinner plates. In many cases, the people eating this fish have limited resources and few alternatives for safer food.

The Washington City Paper recently discussed these findings from a report, Addressing the Risk, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and other local entities assisted in the report.

The team set out to understand how large the subsistence fishing population was, and how much they knew about the river pollution and the risk of eating fish from it. We did not expect to find so many people sharing the fish so widely.

How do you refuse an elderly neighbor on food stamps, when she asks you to bring back a fish? Or if you've been unemployed for a while, but need to feed your family, how do you resist a free, local meal? If you're hungry today, is it worth the risk that the chemicals in the fish might cause cancer in 20 years?

Many fishermen are in fact aware that the river is polluted and that the fish reflect that. They have informal methods for screening the fish, and many will throw back a fish with lesions, cloudy eyes, or other outward signs of sickness. But those methods are further evidence that the fishermen think the fish are only contaminated on the outside, and don't address the PCBs hiding in the fatty tissue within.

Even if they don't plan to eat the fish themselves, the pleas of a neighbor in need or a passing child are irresistible. The fishermen feel like they have helped in their generosity.

Obviously the long-term solution is to clean up the river. We should be able to paddle, fish, and even swim in the river without worrying about damaging our health. Cleaning up the six legacy toxic sites and reducing polluted stormwater runoff (which carries toxins from roads, parking lots, and other hard surfaces) will go a long way.

In the meantime, we need to do more to educate everyone, and particularly at-risk groups like women of childbearing age, about the condition of the river and the risks of consuming its fish. It is also incumbent on leaders in DC and Maryland to improve access to other healthy food. Generally speaking, fish is a very healthy protein. Could the DC area support aquaculture, perhaps in a community-supported model?

AWS and its partners will be holding a community meeting in Ward 7 in early December to answer questions about the research and begin the discussion of how we solve the problem. We hope councilmembers and community leaders will come and pledge to be part of the solution.

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 


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As a first step, why not post better signs?

An image in the WCP article shows a sign reading: "A consumption advisory is in effect for fish caught in these waters."

Instead, something that makes the danger more specific, e.g.: "Eating fish from the Anacostia causes cancer."

by David Leon Gil on Nov 20, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

Eating fish is very healthy. Eating dirty fish, less so. However, just because the fish is dirty doesn't mean it should not be eaten at all by all populations. There's a reasonable argument to be made that for folks without the means to obtain healthy food, eating dirty fish may actually be better than eating at the local fast food restaurant. The question is, if they don't eat the dirty fish, what will they be eating in its place?

For example, the EPA sets the limit on PCBs such that no more than 1 person out of 100,000 who eats the fish regularly in their lifetime will get cancer that they would not have otherwise gotten. That's a good standard for the well-to-do, pregnant, and children but is that a reasonable standard for everyone? That said, I don't know how much above the EPA's limit fish in the Anacostia are at.

DC's guidance on eating fish from its rivers is as follows:

Public Health Advisory

DDOE urges limited consumption of Anacostia and Potomac river fish. PCBs and other chemical contaminants have continued to be found in certain fish species caught in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and their tributaries, including Rock Creek, within the Distric's boundaries. Because of these findings, DDOE advises the general public to limit consumption of fish from all DC waters, as follows:

Do not eat: Catfish, carp, or eel.
May eat: One-half pound per month of largemouth bass, or one-half pound per week of sunfish or other fish.
Choose to eat: Younger and smaller fish of legal size.
The practice of catch and release is encouraged.

by Falls Church on Nov 20, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

People use to recreate on the Anacostia River with regularity -- swim, fish, etc. -- without any care or concern. Old Man Anacostia River has also baptized many folks.

by John Muller on Nov 20, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

No one is eating Anacostia River fish because they are starving. They are eating it for cultural reasons.

by dcdriver on Nov 20, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Julie, for the terrific article and for the work you do as part of the AWS.

I live east of the river and jog in the park. It is a beautiful space. I was always surprised, though, to see folks keeping their catch and when I asked a group if they were worried about health risks they said that they just "clean them really well" and they are fine. Ugh. People eat A LOT of catfish from that river.

I was pleased to see the warning signs; however, they are quite new, perhaps in the last two months they popped up--and a number have been blown down from the Sandy storm.

I am not much of an environmentalist, but with an already high risk population in terms of health, I am glad organizations are taking steps to warn fishers who use the river, which at least in the Anacostia Park stretch include African Americans and Latinos.

by EmmJFDC on Nov 21, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

I used to worry about those people, but is it honestly any better than what's coming out of the Gulf of Mexico these days?

by Alan B on Nov 21, 2012 5:54 pm • linkreport

I've tried to fish there myself (for fun) and have never come close to catching anything. Is is really even possible to stay fed on Anacostia fish? What are they pulling in besides catfish?

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 22, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

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