Oil Spill Crude Disaster

Feb 28, 2011 1:04 AM by Maddie Garrett

Scientist Questions Safety of Gulf Seafood

Fishermen and restaurants are still struggling to rebound from last year's gulf oil spill. But is the seafood they harvest and sell really safe too eat? KATC's Maddie Garrett set out to find the answers from two of the leading experts in Louisiana's seafood industry and environmental sciences.

"What we're concerned about is that people are going to be consuming seafood that contains contaminates," said Dr. Wilma Subra.

Subra is a chemist and environmental consultant in New Iberia. She has served as the Vice Chair of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT). And was a consultant to the Obama Administration during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

She is concerned about cancer-causing chemicals called Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH's. And after the oil spill, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised the allowable amounts of those chemicals in the seafood they test.

"And FDA established these levels specifically for the spill and in some cases they are ten times higher than the levels that were already on the books," said Subra.

After a 1999 tanker spill off the coast of Oregon, the FDA set levels of concern for PAH's at 34 parts per billion. After the BP spill in 2010, the FDA set the risk level from 134 - 143 parts per billion.

Subra also said the FDA established unrealistically small portion sizes for risk levels, such as 4 - 6 jumbo shrimp a meal for a 175 lb person.

"The FDA levels of concern do not represent the consumption rate along the coast," said Subra.

But many organizations flat out disregard Subra's concerns.

"We've got one scientist who's been described, her science has been described as junk science by the head person, the head scientist at the FDA," said Ewell Smith, Executive Director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

Smith and the LSPMB have worked closely with the EPA, Department of Health and Hospitals and the FDA during and since the oil spill.

"So we've got a small army of some of the best scientists in the country who keep coming back and saying all of the seafood that's been tested is fine," he said.

As for those portion sizes, Smith said the FDA is just being conservative, and sites a recent Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries study that states people would have to consume extreme amounts of seafood to reach the FDA's levels of concern for oil contamination. He said this discredits Subra's worries.

When asked if he was concerned about Subra's findings, Smith said, "The only thing that concerns me with her is it just plants a seed of doubt in every body's mind. One nugget of negative news can overshadow all the good news."

But Subra still speaks up, even if no one wants to hear what she has to say.

"This is being cautious, this is being protective of the health of people," said Subra. "If it doesn't change people are going to be made sick."

Subra said she wants the FDA and EPA to increase testing of gulf seafood. And warns that documenting when people get sick from eating oil contaminated seafood could be difficult, because most people may not realize it was the seafood that made them feel bad.

Subra said when eating seafood, make sure it comes from a reliable source and notify the authorities if you do get sick.

But Smith rebuttled, saying testing is rigorous and will continue for many years to come.

"There's no benefit for us to put a bad product out on the market, that would be absolutely foolish for us to do," said Smith.

Smith admits perception remains their biggest challenge, with a recent study showing 70% of Americans are still afraid to eat gulf seafood. But, if Subra's findings prove right in the end, they'll have bigger issues than an image problem.

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