Fish Consumption

Some chemicals, including mercury and PCBs, are widespread in our environment and can build up in certain kinds of fish. Eating these fish may present a health risk, especially for young children, developing children, and people who rely on the fish as a main source of food. The “Stop, Check, Enjoy” project aims to help people avoid these contaminants in fish by choosing to eat safer types fish.

These pages may be useful for local health departments, wildlife agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who work with subsistence fish consumers—but anyone who catches and eats fish can use them!

Explore the following pages for general information about fish contamination as well as educational resources for those interested in hosting their own training session or outreach event for vulnerable groups in a community.

Fish Contamination Basics

Why are there contaminants in fish?

[placeholder for biomagnification diagram from brochure]

Some environmental contaminants like mercury, PCBs, and dioxins exist at low levels in the environment due to human activities including coal burning, industrial activity, and past pesticide use. These contaminants can make their way into rivers, lakes, and oceans because they are not easily broken down by natural processes. These persistent contaminants can then be taken in by smaller plants and animals which are eaten by predator animals, like fish.

Certain types of predator fish which are higher on the food chain are known to build up some environmental contaminants like mercury in their fat or muscle tissues, and this process, called biomagnification, results in amounts in fish that are much higher than the amounts in the water they live in. Consuming fish that have mercury or other contaminants in their bodies can be a health risk.

Who is at risk from contaminants in fish?

There are two important groups of people who have the highest risk from eating contaminated fish:

  1. Children and developing fetuses are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of some contaminants because their normal development and growth can be disrupted by contaminants. Even a small amount of a contaminant like mercury can affect the way children’s bodies and brains develop.
  2. Local subsistence fishermen and their families who regularly eat fish have a higher risk of health impacts from contaminants in fish because they may eat more of these contaminants than other people. This is also an environmental justice concern because people of color and/or people from lower income groups are more likely to rely on locally caught fish as a primary food source.

The health impacts of eating fish with harmful levels of contaminants will depend on the type of contaminant in the fish, how much fish is consumed, and also the age of the person who is exposed to the contaminants.

How do I know if the fish in my area are contaminated?

You cannot tell whether a fish is contaminated just by how they look or taste.

Lab tests are needed to know the concentrations of contaminants in fish. State health departments use fish tissue tests to set “fish consumption advisories” that tell you how much and what type of fish caught from a certain lake or river are safe to eat. They are based on guidelines set by the US EPA. These advisories can help people choose safer types of fish to eat.

In North Carolina, there is a statewide advisory for mercury in all bodies of water. Women of childbearing age (age 15 to 44), pregnant women, nursing women, and children under 15 should not eat fish high in mercury.

Related info:

Background

The educational resources on this website were created by the Duke Superfund Research Center, Cape Fear River Watch, and other institutional and community partners as part of a social marketing campaign aimed at subsistence fishing populations who fish in the Cape Fear River. The CEC was brought in to help facilitate an EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving grant in 2016 that was created as a result of a coalition that had formed to stop a cement plant from adding additional toxic burden on the Cape Fear River.