Jan. 24, 2017 by Catherine O'Neill

Health for Women, Health for All

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated their nationwide consumption advisory on mercury contamination in fish. The advisory, which focuses on women of childbearing age and children, aims to "make it easier than ever" to determine which fish species to eat and which to avoid. It seeks to ensure that women and children don't have to forgo the health benefits of eating fish in order to avoid consuming the potent neurodevelopmental toxin.   

Despite its stated goals, the advisory has already generated criticism because it continues to require families to navigate a complex public health message. As NPR reporter Clare Leschin-Hoar observes, "Critics say the government advisory has done more harm than good, scaring many pregnant and nursing women (and let's be real — pretty much everyone else) away from eating seafood altogether." 

But this criticism just scratches the surface of the problem, a problem that the new Trump administration appears poised to make worse.  

Fish consumption advisories are an example of a quasi-regulatory strategy that relies on "risk avoidance" rather than "risk reduction." That is, rather than require polluters to reduce or prevent toxic releases in the first place, the government calls upon …

Aug. 8, 2016 by Catherine O'Neill

The Clean Water Act instructs states and tribes to revisit their water quality standards every three years, updating them as necessary to reflect newer science and to ensure progress in cleaning up the nation's waters – to the point where people can safely catch and eat fish. Last Monday, Washington State's Department of Ecology unveiled its long-awaited update, revising standards that had been developed back in 1992. The state's rulemaking process has been marked by controversy and delay, which I have criticized several times in the past (see here and here and here and here). Do the new standards finally mean progress? 

Ecology's director, Maia Bellon, characterized the new standards as "protective and achievable." While Washington's standards are indeed likely to be attainable – as Special Assistant to the Director Kelly Susewind candidly told The Tacoma Daily News, "Ecology doesn't expect the new …

March 26, 2015 by Catherine O'Neill

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in the consolidated cases challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule regulating mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.  These utilities remain by far the largest domestic source of mercury emissions, contributing more than half of the mercury releases nationwide.   Mercury emissions are at the root of widespread methylmercury contamination in the nation’s fish.  Fish consumption is the primary way by which humans are exposed to what is, after all, an “extremely poisonous neurotoxin,” as the attorney for those industries that joined EPA as respondent reminded the justices. (Transcript at 84). The exchange captured by the transcript may not permit a confident prediction as to how the Court is likely to rule (an assessment shared by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog ).  But it provides a glimpse of precisely how monetized costs and benefits can …

July 14, 2014 by Catherine O'Neill

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gone to exceeding lengths to defer to states’ efforts to bring their water quality standards into the twenty-first century.  But the state of Washington has shown the perils of this deferential posture, if the goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA) are ever to be reached for our nation’s waters.  After months and years of delay, Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference this week to unveil his long-awaited plan for updating Washington’s water quality standards for toxic contaminants – standards currently premised on a fish consumption rate (FCR) derived from a 40-year-old survey of human exposure. 

Inslee’s grand plan? 

Take one step forward, two (or so) steps backward … and appeal to EPA for yet more time.

Fish consumption is the primary route of human exposure to a host of harmful contaminants including dioxins, PCBs, PAHs, and methylmercury.  The …

March 4, 2014 by Catherine O'Neill

In recent weeks, celebrations throughout the Pacific Northwest marked the 40th anniversary of the “Boldt decision” – the landmark decision in the tribal treaty rights case, U.S. v. Washington.  This decision upheld tribes’ right to take fish and prohibited the state of Washington from thwarting tribal harvest.  Judge Boldt’s 1974 decision was intended to close a chapter in our history during which tribal fishers were harassed, beaten, and imprisoned for the act of fishing.  In recognition of this anniversary, the Washington state legislature voted to clear the criminal records of all the tribal people who had been arrested for fishing – that is, for exercising the rights they had been guaranteed under the treaties.  Yet the legacy of this shameful era may be revived if Washington’s Department of Ecology calculates water quality standards so as to reflect and perpetuate the time when tribes could not harvest …

Feb. 22, 2013 by Catherine O'Neill

Outgoing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson made environmental justice a priority at the agency. As her tenure draws to a close, EPA released its Plan EJ 2014: Progress Report in January, summarizing the agency’s considerable advances toward this important goal. The EPA deserves accolades for the seriousness with which it has treated the issue and for the progress it has made to address the unique and disproportionate burdens that environmental contamination visits on American Indian tribes and their members, on communities of color, and on low-income people.

It is a pity, then, that EPA touts among its “key accomplishments” its role in overseeing Oregon’s belated adoption of water quality standards that are more protective of tribal people and others who consume fish. EPA actually had to be sued in order to play this role. And EPA is taking the same lackadaisical stance elsewhere …

Nov. 8, 2012 by Catherine O'Neill

The current debate surrounding Washington State’s sediment cleanup and water quality standards provides another example of regulated industry calling for “sound science” in environmental regulation, yet working to undermine it.  Industry has worked to delay updates to water quality standards based on the most recent scientific studies, despite the fact that the current standards are based on decades-old data  and don’t adequately protect human health.  Most recently, industry has sought to weaken any forthcoming standards by misrepresenting scientific studies of contamination in Puget Sound and other marine waters and its impact on salmon. 

When agencies set standards limiting toxic pollution in our waters, they aim to protect humans exposed to these toxics by eating fish.  Fish consumption is the primary route by which people are exposed to a host of toxic contaminants, including PCBs, dioxins, and mercury.  Washington’s current water quality standards enlist a …

July 11, 2012 by Catherine O'Neill

When environmental agencies set standards limiting toxic pollution in our waters, they theoretically aim to protect people who are exposed to these toxics by eating fish.  Currently, Washington state’s water quality standards protect only those who consume no more than one fish meal per month.  That means that those of us who eat more fish than this do so at our peril.    

Washington’s Department of Ecology had announced some years back that it intended to update the fish consumption rate (FCR) that in turn sets pollution limits for water and sediment cleanup across the state.  This was a welcome and long overdue step.  Washington’s current water quality standards are based on surveys of people’s fish consumption practices back in 1973-74.  Its cleanup standards are only slightly less outdated.

But Ecology’s effort is being fought by the industries responsible for contaminating Washington’s …

April 20, 2012 by Catherine O'Neill

Earlier this month Washington State’s Department of Ecology released its integrated climate response strategy, Preparing for a Changing Climate.  The strategy again demonstrates that the state is a leader when it comes to preparing for climate change impacts (see also NRDC’s recent report examining climate preparedness in all 50 states).

What makes Washington a leader?  Well, the political leadership is willing to address climate change impacts, and the scientific community is active and engaged and generates the information and data needed to make decisions on climate change adaptation actions.  (None of this discussion, of course, should mean giving any less urgency to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the first place).  Remarkably, the state has made rough economic calculations for the cost of inaction—$10 billion by 2020 as a result of increased health costs, flooding and coastal destruction, forest fires, drought, and other impacts—and …

Jan. 24, 2012 by Catherine O'Neill

A new study underscores the wisdom of reducing the risks of mercury and other pollutants rather than relying on risk avoidance measures such as fish consumption advisories.  Mercury’s adverse effects are not limited to human health; its harms are felt throughout our ecosystems.  According to this most recent study, released today by the Biodiversity Research Institute, mercury harms a broader swath of wildlife than previously recognized, including many bird species that are not piscivorous.  This finding echoes those of studies in the Great Lakes published this fall, which concluded that a larger number of species were adversely affected by mercury contamination than previously understood by scientists.

From a regulatory perspective, the harms of mercury contamination might be addressed by risk reduction – measures that require the sources of mercury pollution to reduce or prevent mercury releases into the environment – or by risk avoidance – measures that leave it …

More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
Jan. 24, 2017

Health for Women, Health for All

Aug. 8, 2016

Cleaner Waters for Washington at Long Last?

March 26, 2015

Monetization, Myopia, and MATS

July 14, 2014

Give Them an Inch … And They'll Take Twenty Years

March 4, 2014

Washington State's Weakened Water Quality Standards Will Keep Fish Off the Table, Undermine Tribal Health

Feb. 22, 2013

Justice Delayed

Nov. 8, 2012

(Puget) Sound Science