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Great Lakes fish called human health hazard

Alarmed by toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, a leading scientific advisory board has issued an urgent call for people to stop eating the contaminated fish that swim in them.

It's the first time that an established scientific group has stated categorically that chemical contaminants in the lakes hurt human health and that they are in the food chain, Fabien Lengellé, spokesman for the 91-year-old International Joint Commission, said yesterday.

The commission's warning is contained in a report to be released next week.

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However, environmental groups have argued in favour of caution for years. Several states already routinely post warnings against eating fish caught in the Great Lakes.

While it's not clear how many Canadians and Americans are consuming the toxic fish, various fishery associations estimate that the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater ecosystem, has a fishing industry worth $4-billion in revenue each year.

About five million people fish the system each year. In all, nearly 40 million people live in the basin that feeds into the Great Lakes.

"If you go out and have fish and chips anywhere in the basin, you don't know, but you could be exposed," said Mr. Lengellé.

Among the possible side effects the commission cites from eating contaminated fish from the heavily polluted Great Lakes are damage to the neurological systems of children and developing fetuses. Particularly at risk of damage are the children of women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Other high-risk populations include aboriginals and Asians who tend to eat more fish than other North Americans, as well as sport fishermen who enjoy a banquet of barbecued Great Lakes fish around the campfire.

"The commission has some very serious concerns about the injury to human health from exposures to contaminants in Great Lakes fish," the commission's report says.

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(Drinking water taken from the lakes is extensively treated to be made potable.)

Scientists and politicians have been concerned over the state of the Great Lakes for nearly 30 years. That concern peaked in 1972 when the Detroit River, part of the Great Lakes system, spectaculary caught fire.

In the two decades following that, the governments of Canada and the United States took steps to clean up the pollution in the lakes, and to stop industrial muck from pouring into the waters.

But as scientists learn more about the effects of toxic chemicals on the human body, and about how the substances work together in so-called "chemical soups," the worry over chemicals entering the food chain has grown.

For example, the report states that while researchers can isolate chemical residue from the tissues of Great Lakes fish and birds, they can identify only about a third of the substances they find.

Not only that, but some levels of government appear content to let nature clean up the mess. That could take decades, centuries or even thousands of years, Mr. Lengellé said.

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In fact, less than 2.4 per cent of 59.3 million cubic metres of contaminated sediment in the U.S. Great Lakes is being cleaned up. On the Canadian side, the figure is 0.2 per cent of the estimated 34.2 million cubic metres affected.

The levels of contamination are especially severe in the 42 chemical hot spots that have already been identified in the Great Lakes. They include Hamilton harbour, waters near Windsor and Detroit and those in Saginaw Bay on the Michigan side of Lake Huron.

Carp caught in Saginaw Bay, for example, have about 65 times the toxins of a hot dog, the study found. For walleye, the figure is about 35, and for perch, about 15.

Mr. Lengellé said that while he doubts that commercial fishermen would deliberately make their catch in these Great Lakes hot spots, the system to monitor that is not fully established.

The commission is calling for Ontario and the eight Great Lakes states to issue strong advisories against eating the contaminated fish. As it stands now, the wording on advisories varies from state to state to province. As well, the advisories are often posted on beaches, or given to male anglers who are not as much at risk as women of child-bearing age. -** -**


The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969. Incorrect information appeared in an article yesterday. (Thursday, July 27, 2000, Page A2)

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