Over the Limit?

PCBs may prompt a first-ever warning against bay speckled trout fishing

"If a ten-year-old girl eats contaminated fish, when she's 20 and gets pregnant she's still going to have half of those PCBs in her body," toxicology professor Carpenter says, "and [she'll] pass them on to her child, with the resulting loss in IQ and disruption of reproductive functions and that sort of thing."

Despite the obvious health threats, Carpenter has limited faith in the ability of state regulators to act on the findings. "When it comes down to real-world government action," he says, "states often are reluctant to set really stringent standards for fear that it will decrease the recreational income from selling fishing licenses. So I think one's got to view some of the state actions with a certain amount of skepticism."

The difficulty of establishing an effective advisory is also compounded by the speckled trout's behavior. The trout data was collected in the Upper Galveston Bay, but the fish migrate frequently to different regions of the bay system. That means an effective advisory may need to cover a large portion of the bay area.

At a glance, the data would seem to back up this conclusion. The highest level of PCBs in a speckled trout was detected in a fish caught off Shoreacres, near the Houston Yacht Club just south of La Porte. That's one of the most distant locations in the study area from the Houston Ship Channel, where most PCB contamination is known to be concentrated.

High levels of PCBs have been detected for several years at the confluence of the Houston Ship Channel and the San Jacinto River, and in the channel's turning basin. In 2001, the state issued a fish consumption advisory for all species in these areas.

Even so, Wiles frowns on the idea of extending a fish consumption advisory further into the bay. "I would not personally recommend that we extend beyond where we have data that we can prove," he says. "But, again, I don't know what will ultimately come from the risk assessment or the department's actions."

Wiles also doesn't know what might be causing the spike in PCBs in the fish.

One potential source of new PCB contamination is dredging. The pollutants can persist for years beneath mud sediments. Parts of the lower and upper bay were dredged in 2000 and 2001, possibly releasing PCBs in the sediments into the environment.

Scientists say the data should spur the state to aggressively seek the source of the pollution. "It suggests the contamination is recent and perhaps ongoing," Carpenter says. So "that should be a very major danger signal."

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