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2004 National Listing of Fish Advisories: Questions & Answers

What is the National Listing of Fish Advisories?

The National Listing of Advisories is a compilation of fish advisory information provided to EPA by states, tribes, territories, and local governments. The information is voluntarily submitted to EPA in an effort to provide a central repository of fish consumption advisories information for the U.S. EPA formats the data and makes the information available via the EPA website www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish.

What is an advisory?

If elevated concentrations of chemicals, such as mercury or dioxin, are found in local fish and certain water-dependant wildlife (such as ducks or turtles), then a state may issue health advice to the public in the form of a fish consumption advisory. A fish consumption advisory may include recommendations to limit or avoid eating certain fish species caught from specific waterbodies or, in some cases, from specific waterbody types (e.g., all lakes). An advisory may be issued for the general population, or for specific groups such as recreational and subsistence fishers, or for sensitive subpopulations such as pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. A consumption advisory is not a regulation, but rather a voluntary recommendation issued to inform people.

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What kind of information is included in the National Listing of Fish Advisories?

The National Listing of Fish Advisories database includes information on the geographic location of advisories, chemical contaminants causing advisories, the species of fish/wildlife affected, the type of advisory (such as no consumption or limited consumption), the population affected (such as women of childbearing age, children, general population), and web links to state and tribal advisory program contacts.

Does EPA analyze this data or does EPA require that the data be gathered in a specific way?

No. EPA simply provides as a service to the public a central ‘one-stop’ repository for the convenience of the public. EPA has issued guidance that provides information for the states to assist in developing methods of monitoring, gathering and assessing information about their fish populations but it is not mandatory. The States have primary responsibility for these decisions. Thus the basis for each State fish advisory varies.

Can EPA draw conclusions or identify trends from this National Listing?

No. EPA's role is to provide a central repository. Each State determines the scope and extent of monitoring, how to decide which waters should be placed under advisory, etc., thus the information is highly variable and makes it difficult to draw conclusions or trends.

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What are the Key Findings for the 2004 National Listing of Fish Advisories?

  • There were more advisories in 2004 than in 2003. This does not mean that contaminant levels in fish are increasing nationwide but rather, that states are doing more monitoring of their waterbodies.
    • In 2004, 35% of the Nation’s lake acres (except the Great Lakes) and 24 % of the Nation’s river miles were under a fish advisory. This represents a <1% increase from 2003. This is the first year since the Listing was created in 1993 that the percent lake acres or river miles under advisory did not increase more than 1%.
  • States continued to issue safe eating guidelines. These guidelines let the public know when fish from specific water bodies or specific species of fish have been tested for chemical contaminants and have been shown to contain very low levels of contaminants.
    • Today, there are safe eating guidelines for 18% (up from 11% in 2003) of the Nation’s lake acres and 2.4% (up from 1.9%) of the Nation’s river miles.
    • The number of safe eating guidelines increased from 386 in 2003 to 1213 in 2004.
  • Increased monitoring by states, which results in the observed increases in the number of advisories and number of safe eating guidelines, leads to greater protection of public health.

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Why is there no significant increase in the number of river miles and/or lake acres placed under advisory during 2004?

Lake acres and river miles did not increase appreciably during 2004 because only one state issued a new statewide advisory during 2004 ( Indiana – for lakes). No states issued new statewide advisories for rivers. EPA knows that some states have already issued (or plan to issue) statewide advisories during 2005, so the upward trend in waters placed under advisory will continue.

How does mercury, which is generally emitted in a gaseous elemental or ionic form, end up as methylmercury in the muscle tissue of fish?

The answer involves a number of complex physical and chemical processes that are not well understood. The cycling, fate, and chemical form of mercury in natural environments, its uptake by biota, its bioaccumulation in the food chain, and its occurrence in fish are all areas that require continued research.

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EPA is reporting fewer contaminants causing fish advisories in 2004 versus 2003. Which contaminants have been dropped from the Listing of advisories?

In 2003, there were in fact 42 chemicals causing fish advisories. In 2004, states reported 7 fewer chemicals causing advisories, including: aldrin, dichloroethane, gasoline, lindane, phthalate esters, trichloroethane, and vinyl chloride.

Were there any new chemicals causing advisories in 2004?

Yes. One new chemical, diethylphthalate, caused advisories in 2004.

For what pollutants are the advisories issued and what has been done to reduce the occurrence of these pollutants in the enviroment?

Most advisories involve five primary bioaccumulative contaminants: mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT. These chemical contaminants persist for long periods in sediments where bottom-dwelling animals accumulate and pass them up the food chain to fish. Mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT were at least partly responsible for 98% of all fish consumption advisories in effect in 2004. Considerable progress has been made towards reducing the occurrence of these contaminants in the environment: US human-caused emissions of mercury to the air have declined more than 45% since 1990 and EPA has issued regulations that will result in further reduction of mercury emissions; production of PCBs for use ceased in 1977; chlordane was banned in 1988; DDT was banned in 1972; and known and quantifiable industrial emissions of dioxin in the United States are estimated to have been reduced by approximately 90% from 1987 levels.

What steps are being taken to reduce the mercury levels in fish, the leading cause of fish advisories?

US human-caused emissions of mercury to the air have declined more than 45% since passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. These amendments provided new authority to EPA to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants to the air. In 1990, more than two-thirds of U.S. human-caused mercury emissions came from just three source categories: coal fired power plants, municipal waste combustion and medical waste incineration.

Regulations were issued in the 1990s to control mercury emissions for burning waste. In addition, actions to limit the use of mercury, most notably Congressional action to limit the use of mercury in batteries and EPA regulatory limits on the use of mercury in paint, contributed to the reduction of mercury emissions from waste combustion during the 1990s by reducing the mercury content of waste. More recent regulation, including limiting mercury emissions from chlorine production facilities that use mercury cells and regulation of industrial boilers, will further reduce emissions of mercury when they become effective in the next few years.

The largest single source of human-caused mercury emissions in the US is coal-fired power plants. Mercury emissions from U.S. power plants are estimated to account for about one percent of total global mercury emissions. The Bush Administration is the first administration ever to propose a regulation to reduce these mercury emissions. On March 15, 2005, EPA issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR) to permanently cap and reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. This rule makes the United States the first country in the world to regulate mercury emissions from utilities. CAMR supplements on EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) to significantly reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. When fully implemented, these rules are estimated to reduce utility emissions of mercury nearly 70 percent.

It is important to understand that mercury, as well as the other bioaccumulative contaminants, is persistent in the environment and is transported globally. This means that for some water bodies it may be many years before states can retract advisories for mercury even though releases and emissions of mercury will continue to diminish. Evidence of the persistence of bioaccumulative contaminants can be seen with DDT and chlordane, two chemicals that were banned decades ago but still persist in the environment.

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Why has wildlife been dropped from the original name of the advisory database?

Since 1993, when this database was developed, states have focused the vast majority of their advisory activities on fish consumption advisories rather than the consumption of water-dependent wildlife. Today, water-dependent wildlife advisories represent less than one percent of the total number of advisories in the national database. Therefore, EPA believes that the new title better reflects the content of the advisory database. However, there are a few states that continue to provide advisories for the consumption of some water-dependent wildlife species, and this information is retained in the database.

For what pollutants are the advisories issued?

Most advisories involve five primary contaminants: mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT. These chemical contaminants persist for long periods in sediments where bottom-dwelling animals accumulate and pass them up the food chain to fish. Mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT were at least partly responsible for 98% of all fish consumption advisories in effect in 2004.

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What about recent advice from EPA and FDA about mercury in fish?

For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. You can find more information about this joint federal advisory on EPA’s web site at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish .

Where can I get more information about fish advisories?

For more information about the National Listing of Fish Advisories and the advisories themselves, you can visit the EPA's fish advisory website at www.epa.gov/ost/fish. To find out how to select and prepare fish, read the brochure “Should I Eat the Fish I Catch?” available in several languages at www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/promo.html. For more information about reducing your health risks from eating fish you catch, contact your local or state health or environmental protection department. You can find the telephone number in the blue section of your local telephone directory, or you can find the name and number of a state or local fish advisory contact on the EPA fish advisory website. For a more detailed analysis of the 2004 National Listing of Fish Advisories, see our Technical Fact Sheet (print version (PDF) [275K, 6 pp., About PDF]).

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