RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Fish in one of North Carolina's largest watersheds are more polluted by an industrial contaminant than previously reported and state health officials have failed to expand warnings against eating PBC-contaminated fish, according to a new study.
After more than a year of research and internal discussions, the state Department of Health and Human Services released Monday its study of PCB contamination along a stretch of the Yadkin River near a shuttered aluminum smelter Alcoa Inc. operated for nearly a century. The study's release comes hours before state environmental officials are scheduled to hold a community meeting Monday evening near the closed smelter to discuss the research.
Environmentalists represented by Duke University law professor Ryke Longest collected data from the study under a public records request. He wrote State Health Director Laura Gerald two weeks ago, saying the agency has known the breadth of PCB pollution for some time and "has not acted to protect the public health" by expanding warnings against eating fish from two reservoirs in addition to the one where the notice has been posted since 2009.
"Every day in which fish consumption advisories are delayed is another day the public stands unprotected," Longest wrote.
State public health officials have warned since 2009 against eating largemouth bass and catfish caught in Badin Lake, located east of Charlotte, because they had elevated PCB levels. Alcoa contested the 2009 fish warnings in a state administrative court.
There also has been a statewide advisory since 2002 urging pregnant women and children under 15 against eating catfish or other species whose feeding results in mercury collecting in their bodies, state health officials said. Everyone else is encouraged to limit consumption of those fish.
"As the report that will be released Monday will substantiate, the existing fish consumption advisory for mercury is sufficient to protect the public health against the concentration of PCBs found in fish studied in High Rock Lake, Falls Reservoir, and Lake Tillery," DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are chemicals formerly used as coolants and transformer lubricants that were released into the environment through manufacturing, or improper disposal and storage of electrical equipment. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, as well as affect their immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its web site. Human studies provide supportive evidence but are less definitive, the federal agency said.