Safety of Gulf Coast seafood after BP spill
A contentious debate continues to take place regarding the safety of seafood from the Gulf Coast since the BP oil spill. Cancer-causing chemicals have been found in seafood from the region, but so far, the FDA considers them to be at levels that are safe for most consumers. Many fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists strongly disagree. They argue that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) seafood testing process is flawed because the FDA focuses primarily on cancer-causing elements of crude oil while ignoring other harmful toxins. A laboratory analysis conducted by a group of toxicologists, chemists, and marine biologists found large amounts of toxic hydrocarbons in tested samples of seafood from the Gulf which can cause liver damage. William Sawyer, a toxicologist based in Florida said, “What [my colleagues and I] have found is that the FDA simply overlooked an important aspect of safety in their protocol.” (NBC)
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How is seafood safety tested?
Testing the safety of seafood in the Gulf after the oil spill is a complicated process. There are a hundred different hydrocarbons in crude oil which can pose various health hazards. Government agencies such as the FDA, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds are considered the most dangerous. The two agencies had to analyze thousands of samples of Gulf fish, crabs, oysters, and shrimp. They found low levels of PAHs in the seafood that were deemed safe enough to consume.
Toxicologist Sawyer said this this type of testing employed by the FDA and NOAA was not thorough enough. He noted that the other hydrocarbons he and his colleagues found were at levels that were twice as high as the PAHs.
Amount of seafood consumed
Scientists are also concerned that government tests do not correctly take into account how much food is being consumed by people. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), criticized the way that the FDA has calculated safe exposure. She said that the fish portions used by the FDA are much too small to accurately reflect eating habits in the area.
More broadly, Solomon and others have criticized the way the FDA calculates safe exposure to PAHs in seafood. For one thing, Solomon and others have long said the fish consumption portions used by the FDA to make this calculation — an average of four shrimp in one sitting — are too small to reflect eating habits in the Gulf region.
A survey by the NRDC revealed that “Gulf residents are eating far more seafood, far more often, than the federal government has acknowledged." This could mean that the FDA standards “may also be failing to adequately protect many people in the Gulf,” Solomon said.
Local residents still concerned about safety of seafood
"Since the spill I haven't eaten the seafood and I've urged my children not to eat it or feed it to my grandchildren," said Patricia Williams, a New Orleans toxicologist. (The Times-Picayune)
Other Gulf Coast residents remain wary of the seafood as well. Sales of locally caught seafood continue to drop, further affecting the region’s huge seafood industry which has been severely damaged by the oil spill. In December 2010, just a week after the area close to the BP well reopened, a shrimper discovered tar balls in his net full of royal red shrimp. The area was reclosed and further inspected for safety.
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