Opinion

Rate protects polluters, not public health | Being Frank

Medical experts say eating a Mediterranean diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and fish is one of the best things we can do to reduce our risk of heart attack and stroke.

Eating more fish and other seafood is a healthy choice as long as those foods don’t come from polluted waters. We think the state of Washington needs to make sure our waters stay clean.

Washington uses one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the country — about 6.5 grams a day, or one 8-ounce fish meal a month — to set rules for how much pollution that industry can put in our waters. That rate is supposed to protect us from more than 100 toxins that can make us sick or kill us, but it was set more than 20 years ago. Even the state Department of Ecology recognizes that the inaccurate rate does not protect most of us who live in Washing-ton, a state with one of the largest populations of seafood consumers in the country.

We should not face an increased risk of illness from toxic chemicals when we try to improve our health by eating seafood.  Washington’s fish consumption rate should be at least as protective as Oregon’s, which has been raised to 175 grams, or about one fish meal per day. Plenty of scientific evidence supports an increase to that amount or more.

Treaty tribes have been trying for years to get Ecology to update the fish consumption rate. Our health and our treaty rights depend on our food being safe to eat.

Work to raise the rate finally began last year, but about halfway through the process Ecology did an about-face and progress skidded to a halt. The cause? A phone call from industry representatives who said revising the rate would be bad for our economy because it would increase the cost of doing business.

We’re trying to get the process back on track, and remain hopeful that Gov. Inslee and new Ecology Director Maia Bellon can help make it happen. We’re also working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to form a Government Leadership Group to move forward.

It’s not going to be easy, though. We’re up against some powerful interests.

Opponents claim federal water quality standards in place here already protect all of us. But how can that be, if we already know the fish consumption rate is wrong? Their answer is that existing rules can include a larger fish consumption rate as long as those who eat more fish accept a higher risk of getting cancer.

Imagine that. What they’re saying is that most people in Washington would be protected by a rate of risk that one in one million people will get cancer from toxins in water. But for anybody who eats more than one seafood meal per month, including Indians, Asians and Pacific Islanders, that risk rate can be as high as one in 10,000. That’s unacceptable. Current state law requires cancer risk rates to protect everyone at the rate of one in a million. That standard should remain unchanged.

There’s no question that seafood is good for us, but it won’t be that way for long if pollution is allowed to contaminate the waters it comes from. It is unjust for Indian people and others who consume a lot of seafood to be at greater risk for getting cancer than everyone else.

Developing a more realistic fish consumption rate and keeping risk standards in place to protect our health is a matter of justice — social justice and environmental justice — for everyone who lives here. None of us deserves anything less.

For updates on the fish consumption rate debate, go to keepseafoodclean.org.

— Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Commission members include the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe.

 

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