Thousands Could Be Eating Contaminated Anacostia Fish


BLADENSBURG—Sharing your food is supposed to be good thing. But when it comes to fish from the polluted Anacostia River, researchers want anglers to stop sharing their contaminated catch.

Half of Anacostia fishermen share their fish with others along the watershed, according to a new survey released by local environmental groups. Most of the anglers—who are disproportionately African American, Asian and Hispanic—share the fish with underemployed neighbors or are begged for fish that they would otherwise throw back.

“This causes a community of 1,000 to 2,000 anglers to extend the consumption of the Anacostia protein to 15,000 or 17,000 people,” said Mike Bolinder of Anacostia Riverkeeper, one of the groups that commissioned the report.

Chemicals in the fatty tissue of fish from the river, when consumed in great quantities, can cause cancer, damage nervous and immune systems and cause birth defects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are worried that there are chemicals in the fish at higher levels than we think are safe for the population," said Dr. Janet Phoenix, a public health professor at George Washington University, who is part of the D.C. Environmental Health Collaborative.

The Anacostia River, a nine-mile tributary of the Potomac River, starts near Bladensburg and empties its waters into the Chesapeake Bay. The river’s watershed is home to 860,000 people across Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Despite recent cleanup efforts from local governments and organizations like the Anacostia Watershed Society, the river is a long way from becoming fishable and swimmable. Fecal bacteria, storm-water runoff, trash and toxic chemicals from the recently closed Pepco power plant in the district plague this urban river.

Franklin Martinez of Laurel said he catches about 15 fish every time he goes fishing at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. He loves fishing but does not eat his catch. He gives it to his neighbors instead.

“I sometimes bring a lot of bass back home. Bass is good and also catfish because of its size,” Martinez said in Spanish. “Whenever I bring them the fish, they smile.”

But channel catfish and brown bullhead catfish--the river’s most common species--are not safe to eat, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, both the district and Maryland have released advisories urging people not to eat Anacostia catfish.

However, a quarter of anglers surveyed along the Anacostia had never heard of the long-term health risks associated with the fish. More than 53 percent of Spanish-speaking anglers surveyed said they did not know of the dangers of eating the fish.

For the survey, researchers conducted 111 interviews at 10 fishing sites along the Anacostia. The interviews were conducted in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The survey was part of a yearlong study that included focus group discussions with anglers and a community survey.

The survey, conducted by local polling firm Opinion Works, was funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental groups said the government needs to do a better job warning people about the dangers of eating fish from the Anacostia.

There are a handful of signs along the river. Fish consumption recommendations are available online and both the Maryland Department of the Environment and the district’s Department of the Environment hand out fishing consumption guidelines when anglers apply for fishing licenses.

Martinez, who has a fishing license, said he did not know that some fish were unsafe to eat. And, the survey found, at least a quarter of the anglers do not have licenses and are not getting the health advisories.

And then there are the people who don’t fish but do eat fish from the Anacostia. The study found that 44 percent of the residents who reported eating local fish “had never heard that eating fish out of the Anacostia could make you sick.”

The bilingual warning signs along the river can be confusing, too, advocates said. Some signs, which use both Spanish and English--recommend limiting fish consumption as opposed to forbidding it and do not specify why some fish should be avoided.

“When folks are looking at them, they said ‘if the fish were really that dangerous, they would tell me not to eat the fish at all,’” said Dottie Yunger, program manager for the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Despite the danger, catching fish to put a meal on the table is very attractive to poorer residents near the river.

“When people are unemployed or underemployed there is a sense of pride on feeding their families through skill as opposed to go to a food bank and get a hand out,” Bolinder said.

While local authorities are planning multilingual public awareness campaigns with signs that show the concrete dangers of repeatedly eating the toxic fish, the long-term solution might have to include a program to replace that source of protein, advocates said.

“It’s not a quick fix,” Yunger said. “But we really feel that by engaging the whole community in this conversation is how we are going to be able to overcome this.”

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