'Alarming' toxin levels found in Columbia fish

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A new series of tests found “alarming” levels of toxins in fish caught from the Columbia River and Columbia Slough, according to an advocacy group that released its results this week.

Data collected by Columbia Riverkeeper showed one fish with a level of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at 270 times the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for unrestricted consumption.

Testing also confirmed a variety of toxins in two other fish, according to the group, with one of those showing PCB levels at more than 70 times the same threshold.

“The results were definitely shocking,” said Lorri Epstein, Columbia Riverkeeper’s water quality director.

Pollutants in the Columbia River aren’t a new development.

Past studies have found many of the same toxins detected in Columbia Riverkeeper’s study, Epstein said.

But the most recent research took a more personal approach, connecting directly with anglers to get their samples. Instead of going to the dinner table, the fish went to a Longview lab for testing.

The study tested three fish: a bass caught near Hood River, Ore., a sucker caught in the Columbia Slough, and a sturgeon pulled from the water near Astoria, Ore.

The sucker, caught in Portland, was the fish that registered 27,000 percent above the EPA threshold for PCBs, according to Columbia Riverkeeper.

The samples also contained chromium, mercury, arsenic and other toxins, some of which are known to increase the risk of cancer and other health problems.

The goal of the research is not to discourage people from fishing or eating their catch from the Columbia River, Epstein said.

A better outcome? “Reduce the toxics that go into river every day, so they don’t have to worry about their health,” she said.

Some of the main culprits are stormwater systems, municipal discharges and even home-based chemicals that put pollutants into the Columbia, Epstein said.

How they infiltrate the waterway and its fish varies — different toxins may appear in different tissues, for example.

The samples included in Columbia Riverkeeper’s most recent study included a filet with skin, belly tissue with meat, and a whole fish.

“They all sort of behave a little bit differently,” Epstein said.

Epstein characterized the work as an ongoing effort.

The group is still collecting samples, including a carp recently pulled from the flushing channel near Vancouver Lake, she said.

Some people have even approached Columbia Riverkeeper indicating they’d like their catch tested, Epstein said.

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