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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oswego Fish

Air Date: Week of

Aside Lake Ontario lies the small city of Oswego, New York where the economy has turned to sports fishing tourism. Despite warnings that contaminants from industrial waste have rendered fish from the Great lake a dietary health hazard, some local people eat the fish because they're free. Over recent years a study has been conducted comparing the development of newborn and infant children whose mothers eat a diet including Lake Ontario fish, to those who don't. Brenda Tremblay reports on the study's findings which is seeing a correlation between eating fish and lowered average I.Q.'s, and some scientists fear the childrens' endocrine systems are being disrupted by toxins in the fish.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Hardly a week passes when we don't hear about some food or additive that may be unhealthy for us. In the recent case of mad cow disease in Britain, the public feels an immediate threat. But when the effects are more subtle, people are more willing to overlook the possible health risks. In New York State, for example, for years the Department of Public Health has banned commercial fishing on Lake Ontario, which is badly polluted with PCBs, dioxin, and other persistent toxic chemicals. The state advises against eating more than one fish meal per month, and it recommends that women of childbearing age and children avoid eating Lake Ontario fish altogether. Despite these warnings, half of all anglers there eat the fish they catch. In the small city of Oswego, New York, on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, sport fishing is a deeply ingrained part of the culture and local economy. But researchers at the University of New York at Oswego are discovering that the community's penchant for fish may be affecting its youngest members, the babies and children. Brenda Tremblay of Member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, has our report.

(A boat motors; a jackhammer)

TREMBLAY: Oswego is a little city of big shoulders, a place where Stevedores unload cement and aluminum from Great Lakes ships. Where the same families have lived for generations, and where the character of the people has been shaped by the brutal an incessant winds of Lake Ontario. The winds of economic hardship have been brutal, too. Over the past 10 years, a steady loss of manufacturing jobs has made life difficult for the families that decide to stick it out. But one industry is booming: sport fishing. Oswego County sells more non-resident fishing licenses than any other Great Lakes county in New York State, and fishing related tourism generates $100 million every year. In early spring, almost all of the fishing action is concentrated in the Oswego Harbor area, where the Oswego River runs into Lake Ontario. Retired IBM worker Don Short is fishing for steelhead and brown trout this cold, early spring morning.

TREMBLAY: Does your whole family eat fish?

SHORT: Oh yes, absolutely. Have to catch them for the daughter and her husband. They all like them.

TREMBLAY: How do they like them prepared?

SHORT: The way I prepare them. (Laughs) See if I can explain it. You have to fillet them, remove all the bones, all the fat and all the skin, and then I soak them about 15 minutes in salt water, which removes a lot of the oil. And then just pan fried with a little butter and
garlic powder; they're very good.

TREMBLAY: Like Don, about half of all anglers eat some or all of the fish they catch in Lake Ontario, despite well publicized warnings from the State's Department of Environmental Conservation. The fish are contaminated with a wide range of persistent toxic chemicals such as PCBs, dioxin, lindane, and mercury. But how harmful are these substances to families which eat the fish? A mile west of Oswego Harbor, along the shore of Lake Ontario, a team of researchers is trying to find out.

WOMAN: Okay now, honey, I'm going to say some words and I want to see how well you can say them after me. Please wait till I finish saying all the words, okay, Abraham? Now listen. Say toy, chair, light.

ABRAHAM: Toy, chair, light.

WOMAN: Excellent. Now say: the boy said goodbye to his dog every morning before he went to school.

ABRAHAM: The boy did bye every morning before he went to school.

WOMAN: Very nice. Now say...

TREMBLAY: Four-year-old Abraham is one of the oldest participants in the Oswego Newborn and Infant Development Project, a long-term study taking place at the State University of New York in Oswego. The point of the study is to follow up on earlier animal research by examining the behavioral development of newborns, infants, and children of mothers who eat Great Lakes fish.

DALY: We have found that laboratory rats fed Lake Ontario salmon as part of their diet show huge behavioral changes. There had only been one previous study done to test the effects in humans.

TREMBLAY: That's the voice of Helen Daly, a member of the Oswego team who began the study in 1991. Dr. Daly recently died of breast cancer. Oswego County was a good place to do the study because it has a single obstetric practice. Dr. Daly and her colleagues were able to interview every pregnant woman in the community; more than half of the women interviewed volunteered to participate in the study despite not knowing exactly what the researchers were looking for. Currently there are 559 women and their babies participating in the study. Testers used the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, a standard research tool, to examine the babies' behavior and reflexes, muscle tone and movement. The test was performed twice, once 12 hours after birth and again 12 hours later.

DARVILL: The babies whose mothers had consumed fish from Lake Ontario were actually scoring more poorly on the second testing than on the first.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Tom Darvill is a member of the research team.

DARVILL: We also saw significant differences between babies who had been exposed to the fish prenatally and those who had not on the number of abnormal reflexes that they exhibited. Now none of these are scores that one would consider to be placing them at risk. These are not certainly the kinds of scores you would see in fetal alcohol babies or something like that. But they are statistically significant, and they do indicate that there is a difference, statistically, on these 3 cluster scores between babies who are exposed to the fish and those who are not.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Darvill and his colleagues are following the babies' cognitive development over time. The oldest children in the study are now 4 years old. Like Abraham, the 3- and 4-year-olds are taking tests to measure whether or not early problems in short term memory and cognitive processing might lead to problems later on in school. Those results won't be available for some time, but so far the Oswego study's results have confirmed the results of a similar study conducted by Sandra and Joe Jacobson at Wayne State University in Detroit. The Jacobsons found that babies whose mothers consumed Lake Michigan fish had poorer short-term memories and slower cognitive processing speeds. Both teams found that these infants responded more slowly to new stimuli, and they showed a greater number of abnormal reflexes, tremors, and startles. Dr. Jackie Rheiman is a member of the Oswego team.

RHEIMAN: The similarities to this point are pretty remarkable. Given the different light, given a decade later, given technology has changed, given varying populations, we found the same results.

TREMBLAY: Both studies caught the attention of Dr. Theo Colborn, a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund and an expert on endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals. Dr. Colborn thinks these results fit into a global pattern of effects caused by synthetic chemicals.

COLBORN: Certainly if we get evidence about a class of chemicals or a specific chemical and it seems to be linked over and over again with these problems, then we should do something about it.

TREMBLAY: In her new book Our Stolen Future, Dr. Colborn argues that synthetic chemicals disrupting hormone systems are having widespread effects on people, even influencing our ability to reproduce along with our behavior and the way our brains function. Fish are only one source of persistent toxic chemicals. Dr. Colborn says these chemicals are everywhere: in the water, soil, air, and food. The contaminants in the fish are not affecting the babies' brains directly, she thinks.

COLBORN: Something just doesn't go in and cut off short term memory. It has to be some part of the brain, therefore, that was not programmed right during development. And so we need to go back and get at the roots of this.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Colborn and other scientists assert that the contaminants are interrupting the precisely timed operations of the babies' endocrine system, by mimicking or disrupting developmental hormones: those chemicals that tell the body what to do and when to do it. A hormone fits into a receptor cell like a key fits into a lock. According to Dr. Colborn, pollutants can either open the receptor when it shouldn't be opened, or, like a rusty key, jam the receptor so it becomes stuck. In this case, the babies' developing brains may be getting the wrong message or no message at all. But the researchers in Oswego are reluctant to say their work confirms Dr. Colborn's hypothesis. As scientists who have to carefully record and analyze every minute observation, Dr. Darvill and Dr. Rheiman are a little uncomfortable with the broad, speculative nature of Dr. Colborn's work.

RHEIMAN: We have no idea of the mechanism that may be involved. And we are interested in chemicals and interested in their influence. But in terms of the mechanism, that would be pure conjecture at this point.

DARVILL: In her theory to me, she certainly seems very plausible, from what I know about it.

TREMBLAY: But as a theory.

DARVILL: As a theory. Again, in terms of its relationship to our work, I would have to speculate, and I'm not very good at speculating.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Joe Jacobson at Wayne State University is also cautious about drawing any broad conclusions from his research.

JACOBSON: Well I think you have to put our findings in perspective. We got a sample of the most heavily exposed infants that we could find, and even in our sample it was only the top 10 to 15% of the infants where we saw any behavioral changes at all. And these were relatively subtle effects, not something that is necessarily alarming or has massive consequences for the individual.

TREMBLAY: But Dr. Jacobson is less cautious in his writings. In a 4-year follow-up study of children born to consumers of Lake Michigan fish, he wrote that relatively subtle deficits in short-term memory and cognitive processing in infants might cause exposed children to have a tougher time later on in school learning to read, or mastering basic math skills. In his published article, Dr. Jacobson calls the overall effects of contaminated fish on babies "diminished potential." If his speculation turns out to be correct, the results of the Oswego project could have serious implications for everyone, especially for the families throughout the Great Lakes catching and eating lake fish year round. Dr. Bernard Weiss is a behavioral toxicologist at the University of Rochester who has theorized about the effects of small losses in cognitive ability across large populations.

WEISS: The average IQ is 100. If you shift the distribution by just a few IQ points, so the average is now 95, then you've moved many more people into the range below 70. That's a stupendous difference. Even if the Oswego group saw only a difference of 1, 2, or 3%, it would be a very costly finding for the community.

TREMBLAY: Those widespread social effects are far from being documented, but despite his caution Dr. Joe Jacobson says the Oswego study is all he needs to see to prove to him that mothers who eat Great Lakes fish can affect their children.

JACOBSON: Well, one study is clearly suggestive and a second study with essentially the same findings is very convincing, and I think you wouldn't necessarily need a third.

(Waves lapping on shore)

TREMBLAY: Nearly everyone fishing today on Oswego Harbor has heard the warnings about eating the fish they catch. But in a city where jobs are scarce and fish are free, people are skeptical and pragmatic. They don't seem particularly concerned about it.

WOMAN: But you know what? So you stop eating fish today and tomorrow, don't eat lettuce. And the next day, don't drink coffee. If you stop one thing, something else is going to get you anyway.

(Waves and sea gulls)

TREMBLAY: Ultimately, the findings of the Oswego research team could help these people know whether or not they should eat what they catch. It may also give us a better understanding of how synthetic substances throughout our food supply can affect our health and well-being. The latest findings of the Oswego Newborn and Infant Development Project will be published in June in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. For Living on Earth, this is Brenda Tremblay in Oswego, New York.



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