Mar 24, 2015 - Reject Increased Cancer Risk Level; Approve New Fish Consumption Rate by Ethel Branch

Proposed water quality standards could mean those who dine on the state’s fish will face increased cancer risk

Do you eat fish? More than once a month? If so, the [Washington] state’s water quality standards are not protecting you from harmful levels of pollutants and toxics, such as PCBs, hydrocarbons, mercury and other chemicals that put you at increased risk of cancer and chronic diseases. When released into Washington waters, these poisonous substances are ingested by fish, which then pass those pollutants on to those of us who eat fish. For years, the state has set water quality standards that assumed Washingtonians eat only one serving of fish per month, so the standards only protect us up to that one monthly serving.

Washington has finally proposed to revise these standards to reflect that many of us eat something like one six-ounce fish meal a day. But in exchange, the state is asking us to accept an increased level of cancer risk.

Under existing standards, only one in a million of us will get cancer if we eat fish at the set rate. Under the state’s proposed new standard, 10 out of every million of us will get cancer. This proposal to increase our cancer risk level tenfold does not even pretend to protect us. As identified by the Seattle Human Rights Commission, it violates internationally recognized human rights to health, to a healthy environment and to safely feed our families the food we catch.

If you seek to be socially responsible by purchasing and eating Washington-caught fish, you may be surprised by this information. We trust our public officials to protect us, but their failure to protect our consumption of Washington-caught fish has been spectacular. Now is the time for government to stand up for us, for our health and our human rights. No one is entitled to dump toxic materials into our waters and poison state residents.

Sure, it is cheaper for industry and public utilities to dump toxic pollutants into our public waters with few limitations. But we live in a world of dwindling resources and an increasing population. There is decreased leeway for environmental mistakes. Industry and government have a responsibility to protect human lives and to respect basic human rights.

We can have healthy waters and a healthy economy. Oregon is implementing a fish consumption rate of six ounces a day with a cancer risk level of one in a million — and that is not shutting industry or cities down. Now is the time for utilities and businesses to step up and take responsibility for their actions and to internalize the costs of their activities, rather than shift the costs to the public and the environment. Our culture and economy, our lives and our health depend on it.

The proposed new fish consumption rate is a tremendous stride forward, but it is just a first step. Those of us who eat multiple fish meals a day will remain unprotected, including groups that consume high levels of fish, such as Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, recent immigrants and low-income people. In Seattle, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans make up 15 percent of the population; 2009 data indicate that 14 percent of city residents have incomes below the poverty level. Water quality standards that leave people who eat the most fish at risk are still not good enough. So, even as we move toward fulfilling human rights and protecting health, we must plan to do more.

On March 9, the Seattle Human Rights Commission sent a letter Mayor Ed Murray and the city council urging them “to take affirmative steps to protect the health and human rights of Seattleites by submitting formal written comments to [the state Department of Ecology]” that would urge rejection of the proposed tenfold increase to cancer risk level and adoption of the higher, more protective fish consumption rate.

You can submit your own comments on the proposed rule by visiting Comments are due March 23.

Sign petition here: Approve New Fish Consumption Rate

Ethel Branch (Navajo) is an attorney and co-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

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