Column: Reducing cancer protection undermines higher fish consumption rate

The Olympian today features a column by Emily Lardner, co-director of the National Resource Center for Learning Communities at The Evergreen State College:

Gov. Jay Inslee has announced his intention to increase the official estimate for how much fish we can safely eat in Washington, from 6.3 grams per day (about the size of a Ritz cracker) to 175 grams per day (about 6 ounces). This decision about how much fish we eat will determine how clean the water in which the fish swim needs to be.

Raising Washington’s fish consumption rate (FCR) puts pressure on industry and municipalities to reduce the discharge of pollutants that find their way into our waterways. Increasing the FCR will put pressure on the state to reduce storm water runoff — and preventing pollution from storm water runoff is the Puget Sound Partnership’s number one strategy for helping restore the health of the Sound. Raising the FCR not only protects human health, but also the health of our rivers, streams and the Sound itself.

In 2011, Oregon raised its FCR to 175 grams/day, the level Inslee is proposing, to reflect the diets of people from the Umatilla tribe, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and avid anglers. According to Catherine O’Neill, member of the Center for Progressive Reform and Professor of Law at Seattle University, data on fish consumption rates among local tribal populations in Washington have been available for the past 20 years. O’Neill reports that the data has continued to mount, with “recent studies documenting fish intake by Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders and by other Washington tribes at rates of 236 grams/day, 489 grams/day, and 800 grams/day.”

Inslee is proposing that Washington’s FCR be increased to reflect the amount of fish people in the state eat, but he is also proposing that the acceptable rate of cancer associated with eating fish be increased from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.

As O’Neill writes, the math behind the proposal is not impressive: “What appears to be a significant step forward (an increased FCR) is nearly undermined by a significant step backward (a less protective cancer risk level). Simple math gives the net effect: it is as if the FCR were being nudged upward to just 17.5 grams/day – and our waters therefore only clean enough to support a fish meal every two weeks.”

Read the full column.