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Is Gulf Coast seafood safe to eat?

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The FDA says “yes”, but more sampling and follow-up studies are needed.

By Posted Nov 9, 2010

Gulf residents and seafood industry workers can breathe a collective sigh of relief with the recent reopening of approximately 3,000 square miles of the Gulf to shrimp and fish harvesting. But in order for the seafood industry to rebound from the BP oil catastrophe, consumers across the US need reassurance about the safety of Gulf seafood for consumption. And while initial testing indicates that seafood from the Gulf is indeed safe to eat, some scientists and researchers feel this testing may be inadequate, and fails to ensure effective long term seafood safety testing.

Testing the safety of Gulf seafood is the joint responsibility of the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Working in laboratories in Baton Rouge and in the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, scientists have examined thousands of samples of shrimp, crab and fin fish gathered from the Gulf of Mexico.

Public health experts say they are not concerned about E. coli or salmonella coming from seafood heavily tainted with oil. What they fear is the possibility of cancer or neurologic impact.

Tests focus on two aspects of oil contamination: the presence of petroleum taint (odor) that renders seafood unfit for human consumption, and the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are chemical hazards. Oil-contaminated seafood is adulterated if the contamination is perceivable by olfaction (taint), or in the absence of taint, chemical analysis determines if the level of PAHs exceeds FDA levels of concern.

Both the FDA and NOAA labs have reported that olfactory and multiple chemical analyses have detected no harmful level of contaminants in tested samples of Gulf seafood.

Besides the spilled oil, over 1.8 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit were used to break up the oil and keep it from washing ashore. The ingredients of Corexit include propylene glycol, a chemical permitted by the FDA as a food additive and used in medicines, cosmetics and toothpaste; 2-butoxyethanol, which is found in cleaners, liquid soaps and cosmetics and quickly degrades in the environment; and a proprietary form of sulfonic acid salt, which is “moderately” toxic to freshwater fish and invertebrates but which the manufacturer says degrades quickly.

To date, available information indicates that the dispersants being used to combat the oil spill do not appear to accumulate in seafood and therefore, there is likely little public health concern from them due to seafood consumption.

Recent discoveries of oil in deposits up to two inches think on the sea floor are a new cause for concern, and underscore the need for continued surveillance of areas previously tested.

Further studies of the long-term effects the oil will have on the Gulf coast and seafood is being undertaken by researchers at the Florida Institute of Oceanography. The various studies are being funded by money provided by BP. In one of these studies, UCF Professor Dr. Graham Worthy will spend the next year finding out if Gulf Coast seafood is really safe to eat.

He’ll do that by following one of the Gulf’s top predators — dolphins — with the basic idea that if they get sick or die from eating fish exposed to oil so could humans.

“These animals are living in waters that we use all the time,” Worthy said. “It’s a huge part of our economy. If they are unhealthy because of the spill, we better know it because we are next.”

Dr. Gina Solomon, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), takes a precautionary approach to seafood testing from the Gulf region. The FDA used faulty assumptions, she says, to determine how much contamination is OK to eat in Gulf seafood. This means that they set the bar too high, and lower levels of contaminants could pose a risk to vulnerable populations – like pregnant women, children and communities who eat a lot of Gulf seafood.

To address flaws in the current assessment, says Solomon, the FDA and NOAA need to release their sampling plans, sample for the full range of contaminants, take an adequate number of samples, and do follow-up sampling in reopened areas to make sure they stay safe.

The FDA has implemented a surveillance sampling program of seafood products at Gulf Coast area processing plants to provide verification that seafood being harvested is safe to eat.

“We’ve got the science of detection down,” says NOAA research scientist Dr. Walton Dickhoff. “The discussions that we’ve been having with EPA and FDA is to determine what’s an appropriate level of (seafood) consumption and risk?”

The bible that most risk assessors rely on is a lengthy 2002 NOAA report, “Managing Seafood Safety After an Oil Spill“, issued after the Valdez spill. It explains that the acceptable cancer risk assessment is derived from how much seafood a person eats, over what period of time and the level of contamination found. Seafood is deemed safe if it doesn’t increase a person’s lifetime cancer rate by more than one additional case in a million people.

Only a few months ago, Gulf seafood producers feared the shutdown of their industry for an indefinite period, and so recent assessments of the health of seafood stocks after the spill are encouraging. But the long-term future of the Gulf region following the oil spill is uncertain. It may affect the delicate ecosystem for at least 20 years, says Carl Hacker, associate professor of ecology and health law at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“All the organisms that are part of the food chain have adapted to weather in the region, such as hurricanes,” he says. “But the ecosystem that took eons to evolve has not had the chance to deal with something that humans do, like spill oil.”

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  • mdai

    im glad they have finally made up their minds.

  • Lee

    thanks for the post but I won't be rushing to the seafood counter for gulf shrimp. not for a while at least.

  • miller

    Common sense says wait a while, like maybe a few years. The marine habitat has been disturbed and needs to be left alone so it can restore itself.

  • Jared

    I'd say the Gulf seafood industry lucked out considering the scale of the spill.

  • lacy

    You mean they test the fish by having some guy smell it? What if had a cold that day? This hardly seems scientific.

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