State health officials downplay tainted-salmon study

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2004

ANCHORAGE - State health officials are downplaying a study on farm-raised salmon that also noted contaminants in some wild Pacific stocks.

Alaska public health officials say information in the study is misleading and incomplete and should not deter people from eating Alaska salmon.

"The nutritional profile on salmon, it almost can't be beat," said Tracey Lynn, environmental public health program manager for the state. "People should not hesitate to eat it, and not worry."

"I feed salmon to my family at least three times a week," Lynn said.

The study, published in the Jan. 9 journal Science, compared levels of four contaminants in 39 sources of salmon to stringent Environmental Protection Agency standards.

While it found elevated levels of contaminants in some farm-raised salmon, it also noted high levels in some wild Pacific salmon.

Chum salmon from waters near Kodiak, Southeast Alaska and British Columbia contained trace amounts of chemicals such as PCBs, toxaphene and dieldrin.

According to EPA standards cited in the study, people should eat that salmon no more than eight times a month.

Sockeyes, coho, pinks and chinooks could be eaten up to twice to four times a month depending on where it is caught.

Southeast Alaska chinooks presented the highest cumulative risk - similar to Atlantic farm salmon from Washington or Chile - and should be eaten no more than once a month, the study suggested.

State health officials said EPA standards are not the only factors that should be considered when deciding the health risks of foods.

"In our opinion, we think that (EPA officials are) being overly conservative and, in being so conservative, they're actually harming people by scaring them away from healthy foods," said Lori Verbrugge, with the state Division of Public Health.

Salmon is a good source of protein and has many vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids that combat heart disease.

So even if salmon carried some contaminants, it would still be much better for your health than eating fast-food cheeseburgers or even grocery beef and chicken, food safety experts said.

When tests show a food violates minimum standards for pollutants, state health officials balance the nutritional benefits against risks and alternative foods in the area, Lynn said.

State officials concluded in their own risk-management analysis that people should eat as much Alaska salmon as they want.

A new state study of PCBs and other contaminants in salmon is under way, said state veterinarian Bob Gerlach. An earlier study found low levels of heavy metals in Alaska fish.

Study authors used the EPA contaminant chart to help explain the results and people should listen to state health agencies in their area, said Jeffrey Foran, one of the authors and president of the Citizens for a Better Environment.

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