New tests reveal high levels of toxic pollutants in fish caught by anglers in the Columbia River and Columbia Slough.
Three recreational fishermen gave up the catch they otherwise would have eaten so the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper could have it tested for contaminants.
The tests found levels of arsenic, mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) that exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency recommends for safe, unrestricted fish consumption.
One of the fish, a sucker from Columbia Slough, contained 27,000 percent more PCB than the level EPA says is safe to eat without health concerns.
The testing found a sturgeon caught in the Columbia River near Astoria contained levels of PCB that were 7,000 percent above EPA's safe fish consumption level.
A small-mouth bass caught near Hood River contained levels of mercury that exceed the levels recommended for safe, unrestricted consumption by 300 percent.
Mercury is linked to air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and it can come from sources all over the world. For the mercury level detected in the bass, EPA recommends limiting consumption to no more than four meals per month.
The tests also detected the heavy metal chromium and flame retardants polybrominated biphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are used in furniture and electronics, among other products, and are known to disrupt hormone functions and increase cancer risk.
Lorri Epstein, water quality director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said clearly PCBs are still a problem even though they were banned decades ago.
Columbia Slough already has a fish advisory for PCBs, she said, but the levels found in the sucker fish were still "alarming."
David Farrer, a toxicologist with Oregon Health Authority, said the PCB level in the sucker fish are about eight times above the level at which OHA would issue a warning that advises people to limit the amount of fish they eat.
But overall, he said, the test results are in line with what regulators already know about the lower Columbia River. He's more concerned about the levels of the flame retardants PBDEs than PCBs.
"PCBs are decreasing in the environment since they've been banned," he said. "They're overall on a downward trend. PBDEs are on an upward trend, and they're just as persistent. They're very similar in structure to PCBs, and there's a lot to indicate there's something to worry about there."
Farrer said his agency is careful about issuing health advisories and tries not to scare people away from eating fish.
"We try to impose as few restrictions as possible because in general fish are pretty healthy," Farrer said. "We don't want to send the message that people shouldn't eat fish. We just want people to choose fish that are low in contaminants."
OHA hasn't considered a warning for people eating sturgeon in the Columbia River near Astoria because in part because the agency doesn't have money to test fish for contaminants, he said.
To issue an advisory, the agency would need test results from several fish in the area – not just one.
Epstein said the test results call for more than fish advisories.
"It's not enough to issue fish advisories warning pregnant women and children not to eat fish," she said. "We need to reduce the levels of toxins in these fish so people can safely eat them."
She recommends tighter restrictions on the permits that allow discharges of water pollutants into the Columbia River and reducing storm water runoff.