Research Engine

If fish are contaminated with mercury and PCBs, are they safe to eat?

A new collaborative research project seeks to provide answers to the risks to Narragansett tribe members where locally caught fish are a staple of their diet – with significant, far-ranging findings for all Rhode Islanders

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/3/17
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KINGSTON – In case you missed it, in February, the first two of six collaborative research awards for pilot projects planned for 2017 were announced as part of the five-year, $19.5 million Institutional Development Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

[See link to ConvergenceRI story, “And the winner is: Rhode Island and its innovation ecosystem.”

The new research program, known as the Advance-Clinical and Translational Research program, or Advance-CTR, addressed what Dr. Jim Padbury, the principal investigator, called “an unmet need for clinical translational research” in Rhode Island.

“You can use the words enthusiasm, opportunity, resources and infrastructure to describe the program,” said Padbury in an interview with ConvergenceRI. Padbury is chief of Pediatrics at Women & Infants Hospital and the William and Mary Oh/William and Elsa Zopfi Professor of Pediatrics for Perinatal Research at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University.

Judging from the initial response to first round of pilot project grants, Padbury continued, the selection process promises to be very competitive: there were 54 letters of interest for just the first round.

The other focus of the research program was collaboration: the collaborative partners in the statewide research program include: Care New England, Lifespan, the Providence VA Medical Centers, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, and the Rhode Island Quality Institute.

The next two pilot projects
The next two pilot project awards of $75,000 each were announced in the middle of March, with less fanfare. Despite the emphasis of collaboration by researchers and institutions under the Advance Clinical and Translational Research program, the news release took on the distinctive quality of pride in ownership of the institutions where the principal investigators of the two projects were housed, in this case, the University of Rhode Island.

The March 16 news release from the University of Rhode Island began: “Pilot Projects involving two researchers at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded federal funding through Advance Clinical and Translational Research, a statewide effort to support clinical research that can be translated into approaches and policies that improve the health of Rhode Islanders.”

The details of one of the research projects and its collaborative approach across institutions and cultures, however, described an intriguing relationship.

Marcella Thompson, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and the Academic Health Collaborative, working with her co-principal investigator, Dinalyn Spears of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, in collaboration with Elizabeth Hoover, Gregory Wellenius and Allison Field at Brown University, are exploring a complex relationship between food, culture and toxicants in the environment.

The project, building upon four years of ongoing research, seeks to examine exposure to PCBs and mercury among members of the tribe, whose traditional diet includes a predominance of locally caught fish. “This is just one phase of our community engaged research with the tribe on a complex environmental health issue,” Thompson said in the news release.

The research project, “Community-Engaged Tribal Research to Assess Dietary Exposures to Mercury and PCBs,” according to the news release, will send trained tribal members into their community to collect data on eating habits and the rate of local fish consumption. The analyses and survey findings will provide the community with information needed to weigh the benefits and risks of eating local fish.

Translated, the research project seeks to document the toxic legacy of Rhode Island that is being carried in fish, and then, through community engagement, create a way for a tribal community to protect itself by being able to make evidence-based decisions about the benefits and risks of eating fish.

We are what we consume
In an interview with ConvergenceRI, Thompson spoke about an enduring legacy of pollution in Rhode Island.

“Rhode Island has a very toxic legacy,” Thompson explained. “In the 1800s, we were the Silicon Valley of steam engines. The mills all dumped pollution in the waterways. Then, Rhode Island became the jewelry capital of the world and even more pollutants were dumped into waterways.”

One of the saddest things about Rhode Island, she continued, is that despite its relative small size, it has 13 national Superfund sites, “the worst of the worst” when it comes to toxic pollution. The state also some 300 contaminated Brownfield sites, Thompson said, managed by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.

“We know there is a lot of pollution in the state,” Thompson said.

Community engagement
The second key collaborative ingredient in the research work is the engagement with the Narragansett tribal community as co-equals in the process.

As Thompson explained, Dinalyn Spears is an environmental scientist as well as a Narragansett tribal government director of community planning and natural resources. In turn, Elizabeth Hoover, and assistant professor of American Studies, is the daughter of a Mohawk and Micmac family in upstate New York, is a co-leader with Thompson o community engagement for the Superfund Research Project at Brown.

The basic question the research seeks to answer, from a tribal perspective, is whether the fish within the tribal ponds are safe to eat.

In Narragansett, the name for fish is namaus; the effort is the Namaus Project – the “all things fish” project, Thompson said. More than simply seeking to identify the toxicants and nutrients n the fish, the project also seeks to ascertain the importance of cultural identity around fish, Thompson said.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Marcella Thompson, talking about the Namaus Project and how the new A-CTR $75,000 collaborative research award is translating evidence-based results of levels of mercury and PCBs in fish into recommendations for how much fish are safe to eat for the Narragansett tribe – and with it, the potential for creating a new kind of public health standard in  Rhode Island. [It will be up to the tribal council to decide this, because the Narragansetts are a sovereign nation.]

ConvergenceRI: Is your research the first documentation of mercury poisoning of the Narragansett Indians?
You should get away from using the word poisoning. It’s an emotionally charged word and inaccurate. Most of what we have seen so far [through testing] of the fish in the tribal ponds are elevated levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs]. We have not tested any humans.

The R.I. Department of Health and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management have issued fish advisories regarding mercury and PCBs fro fresh water and marine fish.

ConvergenceRI: Yes, there are blanket advisories for pregnant women not to eat fresh water fish. But it seems that your study is the first to have data documenting elevated levels of mercury in a population. Is that correct?
The project with the Narragansett tribe has been going on for four years, going on five.

What we have done, as part of this research, is to measure the levels of mercury in fish in Deep Pond and Schoolhouse Pond. We have found mercury in six species, including largemouth bass, yellow perch, pickerel, pumpkin seed and American eel. We have also tested fresh water mussels.

We have tested fish tissue samples for both PCBs and mercury – and also for omega-3 fatty acids and selenium. We wanted to find out: at what levels were there risks, and whether there was a tradeoff.

All the fish advisories done by both the federal and state authorities are done on one contaminant.

They do not measure the benefits in fish that are good for our health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, in cardiac health. Or how selenium inhibits the toxic action of mercury in binding to cells.

We conducted the fish tissue sampling in 2015 and 2016, and the 2016 samples are being tested right now in the lab, after which we will conduct a statistical analysis.

We will bring that information back to the tribal council and the tribal membership, specifically for those species we tested.

The grant award that was just announced is one of many phases in the Namaus Project.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about the community engagement part of the research project?
We have interviewed members of the tribe to ascertain the importance of cultural identity around fish. For indigenous people in general, fish is a really important cultural and economic factor.

Often, the research doesn’t take into account [the impacts from] the absence of fish in indigenous cultures.

When they don’t fish, they don’t learn from the elders how to fish, using traditional messages. The sharing of stories and [of cultural history] is very, very important between family members, particularly with their fathers and the stories that they can tell.

If they no longer can fish, they lose the ability to share [those stories], and then the lose the Narragansett words for the different fish. This loss is also due in part to a decrease in the access to fish and shellfish. We know from their history, the Narragansetts were huge fish and shellfish eaters.

ConvergenceRI: What comes next?
Once we have gotten the fish tissue results, we will be looking at fish consumption, immediate and past occurrences. The new grant will allow allow us to do a fish consumption survey, taking existing surveys that have been used among tribal people and we’re going to structure this particular survey to a fish-related household survey.

We want to identify what fish species the tribe members eat, both on the Bay and offshore, as well as fish from Schoolhouse and Deep ponds.

We will be hiring, through the native indigenous empowerment network, people to interview the tribe members, working with graduate assistants from URI and Brown.

We want to get some translation of how many people are eating fish, the people who fish and eat fish every day as well as the fish that they catch.

Not more than two or three generations ago, the tribe subsisted off the land; they hunted, they fished, they gathered and they grew their own food.

ConvergenceRI: Will you also be working to identify the sources of potential contamination for the mercury and the PCBs?
We will be conducting sediment sampling within the watershed this summer. It comes full circle, back to where we started. Both Liz Hoover and I have worked together on the Superfund research for five or six years, interacting with tribal and community leaders through a large National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant.

Rhode Island has a very toxic legacy. In the 1800s, we were the Silicon Valley of steam engines. The mills all dumped their pollution into the waterways. [Rhode Island has 13 Superfund sites and more than 300 Brownfield sites.]

ConvergenceRI: Are there ongoing epidemiological studies regarding the Superfund sites?
Under the Superfund Research Program at Brown, there are two ongoing biomedical engineering projects, with bench scientists looking at the molecular toxicology and modeling, and translating that research around toxicology and its relationship to possible contamination from Superfund sites.

Using information gleaned from the bench, these scientists are working on assessing contamination and using new technology to clean up these sites.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have an idea about where the potential contamination of mercury and PCBs emanated from?
We are doing some core sampling. We are also looking at historical contamination. We should know more by the summer. With mercury and PCBs, we know that they are pervasive and persistent.

Mercury is also naturally occurring; PCBs are strictly manufactured. They don’t occur naturally in the environment.

There are a number of potential sources of PCBs and dioxins in fresh water fish, but we don’t know of any specific sources for the ponds.

We don’t know where the PCBs are coming from – it could be from upstream sources or in the air.

ConvergenceRI: How did you get interested in this kind of research?
When I got my Ph.D. at URI, I analyzed data from the CDC as part of a national survey from the 1960s, looking at women of childbearing age and the blood levels for lead, mercury and PCBs.

I found that in women between the ages of 16 and 49, 23 percent had all [of these contaminants] above the median level in their blood, and 34 percent had two of three [of these contaminants] above the median levels in the their blood.

Of the 72 different potential risk factors for elevated blood levels, number one was age, and number two was the level of fish consumption.

We know that these toxicants bio-magnify as they go up the food chain. They also tend to bio-accumulate as they get older and larger.

Lead is stored in the bone, mercury in the muscle and PCBs in the fat. Women can pass these chemicals to their children through breast milk and the placenta.

From 1999-2004, [my analysis] found that if women had breast-fed their children, the odds of having two or three of these chemicals decreased. Which menas they were passing these contaminants onto their children through breastmilk.

ConvergenceRI: How does that translate into what fish you should eat, and how much fish you should eat?
Any of the predator fish, such as tuna or king mackerel, are likely to have the highest level of contaminants because they are highest on the food chain.

It is also depends on location, location, location. Even with those species, it depends on where they live and whether the water is contaminated, how much you eat and how often.

ConvergenceRI: In what ways have you involved the tribal members with your research activities?
As part of the blueprint for community engaged research, we have involved tribal members in collecting data. I really work with them as equal partners.

As part of our ongoing community engagement activities, I have an information tent that the tribe provides me at powwows. We sponsored a youth fishing tournament, with a catch and release program.

We are engaging with the tribal elders, who showed the children how to weave nets using the bark of the ash, or creating a fish hook from the leg of a deer.

It’s a kind of convergence we are involved with, involving people of all ages, to provide an opportunity to learn about their environment and to bring the power of science to bear to help protect the environment.


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