by Elizabeth Weise and Traci Watson
One third of the nation’s lake waters and one-quarter of its riverways are contaminated with mercury and other pollutants that could cause health problems for children and pregnant women who eat too much fish, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.
States issued warnings for mercury and other pollutants in 2003 for nearly 850,000 miles of U.S. rivers — a 65% increase over 2002 — and 14 million acres of lakes. The warning level is the highest ever reported by the EPA. It is partly a result of states taking a more aggressive role in monitoring for mercury, according to environmental officials.
The warnings do not apply to fish caught in the deep seas that are sold in stores and restaurants. An extremely small percentage of commercially sold fish come from inland lakes and rivers.
“This is about trout, not tuna. It’s about what you catch on the shore, not what you buy on the shelf,” said EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt. “This is about the health of pregnant mothers and small children.”
Adults seldom suffer health problems from eating fish laden with mercury. But a diet rich in mercury-tainted fish can severely damage the nervous systems of children and fetuses. That’s why states issue fish warnings not only to children but also to women young enough to have children. Many states advise that women and children eat no fish at all from the most heavily contaminated lakes and rivers, which are listed in state Web sites. Recommended consumption limits on fish from other water bodies range from once a week to once every two months.
Eighteen states have issued warnings on eating fish caught from all lakes and rivers. In Minnesota and Michigan the advisories apply only to lakes and in Indiana only to rivers.
Another 23 states warn that fish caught in some lakes and rivers could be contaminated. Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Alaska issued no mercury warnings.
The warnings apply to well-known water bodies ranging from Lake Champlain and Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.
Mercury is emitted primarily by incinerators and power plants that burn coal. The EPA plans to publish rules restricting mercury from power plants by mid-2005, although environmentalists say the preliminary draft of those rules does not go far enough.
The statistics released Tuesday are based on data the EPA collected from states for 2003. The states are responsible for issuing warnings about fish caught in local streams and lakes.