Can I Eat the Fish?

Frequently Asked Questions:

Environmental Justice can be defined in many ways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice is defined as: “…the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/

Another way to think about Environmental justice is the Fair distribution of environmental benefits and environmental burdens. An environmental injustice exists when members of disadvantaged, ethnic, minority or other groups suffer disproportionately from environmental risks or hazards.

Why are polluted waterways and polluted fish an Environmental Justice issue?

Polluted waterways and polluted fish become an environmental justice issue when a disproportionate environmental burden falls upon disadvantaged communities who access those resources. An angler who fishes for sport can generally choose whether or not to eat their catch, while someone who lacks the economic resources to purchase food or fish at the grocery store cannot. The more polluted fish a person eats, the more pollution they put into their bodies and the more health risks they may face. Without access to alternative and affordable foods, and without access to information about the health risks of eating polluted fish, subsistence fishing communities face more of a burden than those communities who do not utilize or depend on local water resources in these ways. The responsibility falls on anglers and those who subsist on fish to change their behavior if they want to improve their health and reduce their risks. Instead, responsibility should fall on those who polluted and continue to pollute our waterways today to clean up their act so that everyone can enjoy and use our waterways.

The Public Health and Environmental Justice program defines pollution as anything introduced to an environment which is harmful or toxic. There are many sources and types of pollution in Western New York waterways. Water pollution is an important issue everywhere. Not all pollution comes from local sources. Some pollution comes from far away through the air and water.

There are many sources of pollution in our local waterways.
Orange and brown dots were used to show how pollution can enter our waterways and fish. In real life, you cannot see, smell or taste most of this pollution.

Chemical pollution is the most harmful type of pollution in our waterways.Chemical pollution can come from all of the sources shown above. Our waterways are also polluted with harmful germs. This type of pollution can come from human waste in sewage and animal waste from farm runoff. 

Western New York has a long history of pollution. This region’s abundant supply of water made it a center of transportation, farming and industry for more than one hundred years.

Cheap hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls brought many types of industries to the region. In fact, Western New York’s abundant supply of water and cheap power helped it become one of the world’s largest producers of chemicals. Although these industries brought jobs and growth, they also polluted our water and fish with harmful chemicals.

Before the 1970s, many harmful chemicals were directly dumped into the water or buried in nearby landfills.Even though laws were created to control this pollution, much of it still remains in our local waters and fish. Many of these chemicals are long-lasting and difficult to clean up.

A lot of work has been done to clean up pollution in Western New York waters. However, chemical, sewage and other types of pollution are still major issues in our local waterways. Many industries have left this region, but much of the pollution they created remains hidden in our waterways.

This pollution continues to affect many of our rivers, lakes and shorelines even though they may look cleaner and greener than they did in the past. Much more work needs to be done before our water is clean and all of the fish are safe to eat again.


Fish become polluted when they live and eat in polluted waters. Chemical pollution builds up in the sediment (bottom soil and muck) of rivers and lakes. Small animals living on the bottom eat the polluted sediment and become polluted, too. Chemical pollution in the sediment is passed up the food chain to fish that eat these small animals. A food chain is how animals get food and energy from other living things in the environment.

The picture above shows how chemical pollution can build up in fish and be passed up the food chain to larger and larger fish. When we eat fish, we become a part of this food chain. The chemicals in their bodies can pass to ours when we eat them.

The most harmful kinds of chemical pollution are long lasting and build up in fish over time. The longer a fish lives and eats in polluted water, the more polluted it tends to be. Larger, older fish have more of these harmful chemicals built up in their bodies than smaller, younger fish.

Different parts of the fish build up more chemicals than other parts.

  • Chemicals such as PCBs, Mirex and Dioxin build up in the fatty parts of the fish including the skin, guts, head, belly fat and lateral lines (the dark tissue along the sides of the fish).
  • Mercury builds up in the muscle of the fish.

No. You cannot see most pollution in water and fish. You may see smoke coming from factories or garbage in the water, but harmful chemicals and germs are too small to be seen with the human eye.

  • Clear water does not equal clean water. Water that looks clean can be more polluted than water that looks dirty.
  • Water can be fast-moving and deep and still be very polluted. The Niagara River is a fast-moving river, but the water and some of the fish are still polluted with harmful chemicals.
  • You cannot tell if a fish is polluted with harmful chemicals when you look at it. A polluted fish may look, smell, and taste the same as a fish that is not polluted.

This question is hard to answer. When we eat polluted fish, the pollution in their bodies can pass to our bodies. The more polluted fish we eat, the more pollution we put into our bodies. The more pollution we put in our bodies, the greater the risk to our health. Not everyone will get sick from eating polluted fish. How pollution affects your body can depend on your lifestyle, weight, age, sex, and overall health.

Different kinds of pollution can make you sick in different ways. Contact with germs in and on fish may make you feel sick right away. Health effects may include stomach problems, such as diarrhea or vomiting, and infection. To learn more, read page 62. Eating chemically polluted fish will not make you feel sick right away. However, chemical pollution may seriously affect your health in the future.

The chemicals of most concern to human health are long-lasting and build up in our bodies over time. It may take months or years of eating polluted fish to build up enough chemicals in your body to be harmful to your health. The health effects can be very hard to notice, such as memory loss, or more serious, such as cancer. Different chemicals can affect our bodies in different ways.

High levels of chemical pollution can harm the:

  • Brain – Changes in behavior, memory, and ability to learn new things
  • Thyroid glands – An organ that controls hormone levels
  • Skin
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Quality of sperm in men
  • Health of pregnancies and periods in women

Everyone is at risk from eating polluted fish, but some people are more at risk than others. Babies and children under 15, and women in their child bearing years need to be the most careful when eating fish caught from rivers and lakes in Western New York because of chemical pollution.

Fish can be delicious and healthy to eat. Fish are a good source of lean protein and are low in saturated fat. Eating fish can help your body fight illness and disease and keep your insulin levels healthy if you have diabetes.

Eating fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, a good fat, may prevent heart disease in adults and improve brain growth in babies and children.

Fish can be a very healthy meal for you and your family. However, some fish may be harmful to eat. Fish caught from some rivers and lakes in Western New York are polluted with harmful chemicals. When we eat polluted fish, the chemicals in their bodies can pass to our bodies and build up over time. Eating a lot of polluted fish may be bad for our health.

To help people make healthier choices about which fish they eat, the New York State Department of Health issues health advisories. For advice on how much fish you should eat from local waterways, go online to www.nyhealth.gov/fish or call the Department of Health toll-free at (800) 458-1158 for more information.

  • Make smart choices when eating locally caught fish. Follow the tips below to make your fish meals safer and less polluted.
  • Check Health Advisories. 

To help people make healthier choices about which fish they eat, the New York State Department of Health issues health advisories. For advice on how much fish you should eat from local waterways, go online to www.nyhealth.gov/fish or call  the Department of Health toll-free at (800) 458-1158 for more information.

Choose

Eat smaller, younger fish. Larger, older fish have lived in the water longer and tend to build up more chemicals in their bodies than smaller, younger fish. The fish shown here are often less polluted and a healthier choice:

  • Black Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Pumpkinseed
  • Rock Bass
  • Yellow Perch

Clean

Many harmful chemicals are in the fatty parts of the fish, such as the head, guts, and skin. To remove up to half of some chemicals from your meal, remove all the fatty parts before cooking. Do not eat fatty parts. Throw them away.

Cook

Cook and eat only the skinless fillet. The skinless fillet has the least chemicals. Cook fish on a rack or in ways that allow the fat to drip off, like baking, grilling, broiling and steaming. Do not eat or use cooking liquids and fats to make soups or sauces. They contain many chemicals.

Plan Your Fish Meals

Consider eating fish from Lake Erie or other waterways that do not have New York State Department of Health Advisories. For adults, eat no more than a half-pound of locally caught fish each week. Children should eat smaller fish meals than adults. A half pound, uncooked fish fillet is about the size and thickness of two decks of cards, or an adult hand.

To Learn More:  Talk to your doctor if you have any health questions or concerns.

For information about Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper’s Public Health and Environmental Justice Program contact:

Ba Zan Lin
Public Health and Environmental Justice Education Coordinator
blin@bnriverkeeper.org
Extension 26

 

 

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