Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Catfish as Canary

Today's Capital reports that 30 catfish recently caught in the South River during a yellow perch study were found to have lumps and lesions around their mouths. The tumors found on the brown bullhead catfish, which feeds from the soils at the bottom of the river, are apparently similar to those found on fish pulled from the heavily polluted Anacostia River.

The leading suspects at this point are a class of toxins called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to the EPA public health statement on PAHs, "Several of the PAHs, including benz[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[j]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, chrysene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, and indeno [1,2,3-c,d]pyrene, have caused tumors in laboratory animals when they breathed these substances in the air, when they ate them, or when they had long periods of skin contact with them. Studies of people show that individuals exposed by breathing or skin contact for long periods to mixtures that contain PAHs and other compounds can also develop cancer."

The fish are currently being studied to discern the cause(s) of the tumors. But, let's assume for the time that the cause is PAHs. Where did they come from? Again, the EPA states, "PAHs enter the environment mostly as releases to air from volcanoes, forest fires, residential wood burning, and exhaust from automobiles and trucks. They can also enter surface water through discharges from industrial plants and waste water treatment plants, and they can be released to soils at hazardous waste sites if they escape from storage containers."

As we're pretty short on volcanoes, forest fires, and generally massive amounts of wood burning in the area, that leaves vehicle exhaust, discharges from wastewater plants, and hazardous waste sites. As I recall, Route 50 crosses the upper reaches of the South River, Annapolis has a wastewater treatment facility (and old landfill) in the headwaters of the River, and there's a toxic dump abutting streams that feed into the River. Looks like we've hit the trifecta, folks. We're poisoning ourselves, and sometimes it takes a catfish with cancer to remind us.

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