Fried fish, crab cakes, and seafood gumbo are some of the many traditional seafood dishes found in the culinary arsenals of African-American cookbooks. However, those using locally-caught fish to cook up these dishes might be unknowingly poisoning themselves and their families in the process.
A recent article published by Environmental Health News showed that despite minorities being most at risk for consuming contaminated fish caught in the nation’s rivers, lakes and bays, more than 4,500 state advisories warning against such consumption has failed to adequately reach them.
“It’s certainly a national issue,” said Rae Tyson, author of the article, which is part of EHN’s larger environmental justice issues series. Tyson spent three months traveling to the Great Lakes and upstate New York and speaking with about thirty doctors, state environmental agencies, activists, minority groups and fishermen from across the country.
“The fact is that there is not a high level of awareness,” said Tyson.
In eating the fish from their neighborhood waters, African-Americans, Asian and Latino immigrants, and Native Americans, especially those in low-income communities, unknowingly ingest contaminants like mercury and industrial compounds linked to neurological problems. Women under 50, pregnant women, and children run the most risk of suffering directly from eating the tainted food.
Minority communities have been found to consume fish, aquatic life and wildlife in greater quantities than the general population, as reported in a landmark study published by the EPA in 2001. A 2011 Cornell University survey illustrated another disparity, finding that of the 1,700 licensed Great Lakes fishermen questioned, 61 percent of whites said they followed the advisories, compared to only 50 percent of non-whites.
Why do so many minorities persist in the dangerous practice? “For some, fishing is a necessity and not a sport. If you need to put food on the table, or if your heritage is tied up with fishing, education can only go so far,” Andria Ventura of California’s Clean Water Action was quoted as saying in Tyson’s report.
Yet, authorities must also take more responsibility for failing to communicate the risks of eating items fished from toxic environments. Between tourism offices promoting sport fishing and state agencies advising certain species for consumption over others, the advisories “send a mixed message to anyone out there fishing,” said Tyson.
Language barriers, varying computer access, and agencies’ underestimation of their consumption levels and eating practices also thwart increased awareness in these multicultural groups.
Some fishermen featured in the Environmental Health News article who were aware of the fish advisories insisted that they would continue to catch their family’s food from the polluted waters anyway. A migrant farm worker who “needs to feed [his] family” by fishing from a polluted creek told Tyson, “The water is clean so the fish is okay,” despite the warnings.
A lack of immediate health affects from contaminants may be one reason that fishermen who are aware of the pollution advisories have yet to heed the state warnings.
“You’re not going to drop dead from eating it,” said Dr. Isaac Wirgin, an Associate Professor at the New York University of Environmental Medicine. “The effects don’t come for years or decades later.”
However, when the results of eating contaminated wildlife do surface, the effect on the victims can be devastating. This past March, the Environmental Protection Agency authored a study that found developmental deficits and neurological problems in children whose mothers ate PCB-contaminated fish.
The attention given to inadequate advisories that attempt to deter minorities and other groups from eating tainted fish is just “a band-aid” and the “tip of the iceberg,” according to Monique Harden, founder and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm.
Harden added that the focus needs to be not on warning minority communities of contaminated fish, but instead on prompting them to question the source of the water pollution. “Why are we allowing this stuff in the water in the first place?,” she said.
To address what her clients see as evidence of this wrongdoing, her firm recently filed a human rights lawsuit, now pending, against the U.S. government. The suit asserts that flawed environmental standards have enveloped the small African-American community of Mossville, Louisiana in severely toxic conditions.
“It’s about rethinking how products are made and how manufacturing toxic materials is regulated,” Harden said of how destructive chemicals find their way into our waterways.
“When you look at communities of color where environmental hazards are permitted, it becomes obvious that there’s something really wrong with our environmental laws and regulations.”