You could almost hear the collective Whew! from the Gulf of Mexico fishing industry (and lovers of oyster po’ boys, blackened redfish, and shrimp jambalaya) this spring when Donald Kraemer, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, proclaimed: “We’re very confident that the steps that we have put in place to assure the safety of seafood have worked. We put in an extensive program of sampling, and the results have consistently been 100 to 1,000 times below our levels of concern. So, we’re quite confident that the seafood that’s in commercial channels is safe.”
His was but one loud voice in a chorus of government officials offering assurances about the safety of Gulf seafood after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals -- even President Obama -- all chimed in.
But a new study finds that the FDA seriously underestimated the health risks from contaminants in Gulf seafood. Following the release of the study, which was led by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, NRDC submitted a petition to the FDA requesting that it set stricter safety standards for chemical contamination in seafood from the region. NRDC said that the agency had relied on “flawed or outdated assumptions” that allowed up to 10,000 times the safe levels of contamination. Pregnant women, children, and people who eat a lot of seafood are most vulnerable.
The study, which appeared in the online version of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, raised concerns about serious deficiencies in the risk assessments the FDA used to establish the safety of Gulf seafood, saying that the scientific standards were less stringent than those used by the agency in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which occurred in 1989.
NRDC is particularly concerned about a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in crude oil and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, neurological impacts, and liver disease. Naphthalene was one of the most frequently detected chemicals in Gulf seafood after the spill. Even though it is recognized as a probable carcinogen, the petition claims that the FDA failed to take that into consideration when determining what levels of the chemical were safe.
The agency established its safety levels based on the effects PAHs would have on a person weighing 176 pounds, for example, even though the majority of people weigh less -- considerably so in the case of most women and children. It also based seafood consumption rates on the national average, but residents of areas bordering the Gulf eat as much as five times that average. The FDA’s assessments apply to adults only, and do not consider harm the chemicals can do to fetuses and young children, who are at higher risk from chemical exposure.
NRDC’s petition requests that the FDA re-examine its conclusions about the safety of Gulf seafood “based on the latest, best practice in risk-assessment methodologies.”
One has to wonder why the government agency that is charged with keeping our food safe didn’t rely on the best science in the first place.
Photo: Stories from the Gulf