Duke University and Oakland University release report on potential health risks from consuming wild caught fish from the Lower Cape Fear River basin

June 13, 2022

DURHAM, N.C. – The Community Engagement Core of the Duke University Superfund Research Center and Oakland University released a report today summarizing the ongoing health risks of eating certain fish from the lower Cape Fear River and nearby rivers and streams in southeastern North Carolina.

The report details the current fish consumption advisories for the area as well as recent research that tested commonly caught fish from popular fishing spots for chemical contaminants that may pose health risks. The report also summarizes research on the types of people who fish and eat fish from the river, along with their motivations for doing so.

The research found that people eating fish from the river tend to be low-income and/or food insecure individuals and families and that many are consuming amounts and types of fish that may pose health risks, particularly for children and pregnant people. Findings also indicated that fishing and eating fish are important cultural and economic activities in the region.

“The goal of this work isn’t to scare people away from eating fish from the Cape Fear, but we do hope that fewer people eat unhealthy amounts of contaminated fish, particularly those most vulnerable to harm,” said Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, the Director of the Community Engagement Core. “What we are trying to let people know is that there are many alternative species and preparation and cooking methods that can limit health risks while still letting people enjoy the river and its bounty.”

The lower Cape Fear River is a highly polluted waterway. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has issued fish consumption advisories for legacy pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium. Unfortunately, state agencies have limited resources to collect fish samples and assess the risks of eating contaminated fish across the state. Prior to the 2020-2021 fish tissue analysis carried out by the authors of the report, no samples from the region were collected and analyzed for consideration of health risks since 2013.

“The recent fish collection and testing provides more clarity on the health risks of eating fish from the lower Cape Fear River, but more work is needed to understand the risks and to reach vulnerable populations with culturally appropriate messaging. Additional funding and support are needed for the state agencies responsible for assessing the health risks from consuming wild caught fish and for local health departments who communicate about these risks,” according to Mozhgon Rajaee, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Oakland University.

Read the new report – “Subsistence Fish Consumption on the Lower Cape Fear River: Summary of Research 2016-2022”  

Since 2016, the Community Engagement Core has worked with community partners in the lower Cape Fear River Basin to increase knowledge of current fish consumption advisories and to encourage safer choices when preparing and eating fish caught from the river. This coalition of community partners conducted research on fish consumption patterns and the most effective messaging and channels of communication to inform and elicit safer choices. The results were then used to inform the development of culturally appropriate materials and a targeted outreach campaign – Stop, Check, Enjoy!

The Duke University Superfund Research Center is supported through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program P42 Multiproject Center Grant program, grant number P42ES010356. A 2016-2017 household survey that is summarized in the report was supported through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program under assistance agreement 00D49616.