Feds still working on a test for dispersants as intense Gulf seafood safety testing continues
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [Associated Press] By Lauran Neergaard - August 17, 2010 - WASHINGTON,
Fish, shrimp and other catches from the Gulf of Mexico are being ground
up to hunt for minute traces of oil in what's considered unprecedented
safety testing - sort of a 'CSI' for seafood that's far more reassuring
than the sniff test that made all the headlines.
And while the
dispersant that was dumped into the massive oil spill has consumers
nervous, health regulators contend there's no evidence it builds up in
seafood - although they're working to create a test for it, just in
'We're taking extraordinary steps to assure a high level of
confidence in the seafood,' Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Monday.
expect the monitoring to end soon: 'We're not going anywhere,'
Lubchenco said, renewing a pledge to keep testing even in waters
declared oil-free to detect any lingering seafood concern.
Gulf waters are reopening to commercial hauls as tests show little
hazard from oil. Louisiana's fall shrimp season kicked off Monday. Yet
it's too soon to know what safety testing will satisfy a public so
skeptical of government reassurances that even local fishermen voice
Basic biology is key: Some species clear oil
contamination from their bodies far more rapidly than others. Fish are
the fastest, oysters and crabs the slowest, and shrimp somewhere in
'I probably would put oysters at the top of the concern
list and I don't think there's a close second,' said marine scientist
George Crozier, who directs the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.
oil contaminants of most health concern - potential cancer-causing
substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs - show up in
other everyday foods, too, such as grilled meat. Low levels also are in
seafood sold from other waters.
Where Gulf seafood harvesting
has been reopened, 'the levels that we see are pretty typical of what we
see in other areas, Puget Sound or Alaska,' said Walton Dickhoff, who
oversees testing at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in
Here are some questions and answers about Gulf seafood safety:
Q: What are PAHs?
They're common pollutants from oil, vehicle exhaust, wood-burning fires
and tobacco smoke. They can be in food grown in polluted soil and form
in meat cooked at high temperatures. NOAA research found that Alaskan
villagers' smoked salmon, a staple food, contained far more PAHs than
shellfish tainted by the Exxon Valdez spill.
Q: How does the government decide it's safe to reopen fishing waters?
Seafood testing begins when there's no longer visible oil in a
particular area. First, inspectors smell samples for the slightest whiff
of oil. Step 2 is chemical testing at the Food and Drug Administration,
NOAA, or state laboratories.
To reopen seafood harvesting, the
samples must test below FDA-set 'levels of concern' for 12 PAHs, based
on how much someone would have to eat for a potential health risk, and
how much of each food fairly heavy seafood consumers tend to eat in a
month. Well over 1,200 samples have been tested with many more on the
way, each sample containing multiple individual fish, shrimp, crab or
Q: What if fishermen illegally fish in closed waters?
A: The government is patrolling those waters, doing dockside sampling and stepping up inspections at seafood processors.
Q: With so much oil in the Gulf, how could fish emerge untainted?
Commonly consumed fin fish - like grouper, snapper and tuna - rapidly
metabolize those PAHs. That's been known for years and tracked during
other oil spills, and the reason that fishing is being allowed first in
For example, the limit in fish of the PAH named
benzo(a)pyrene is 35 parts per billion. In recently reopened waters off
the Florida panhandle, levels were below 1 ppb. Similarly, last weekend
FDA labeled amounts of that chemical below the limit of detection in
shrimp from Louisiana's reopened Barataria Bay.
Q: Why haven't crabs and oysters been cleared?
A: They're the slowest metabolizers, plus crabs require an extra testing step that FDA hasn't finished.
are probably the best absorbers of oil, as they take in droplets and
dissolved oil, said Carys Mitchelmore, an aquatic toxicologist at the
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
oyster testing is just beginning, so stay tuned, although the FDA
recently cleared some from Alabama that contained less than a quarter of
the total PAH limit of 66 parts per million.
Q: But what about that controversial dispersant - are the feds testing for it?
A: Not yet; they're still developing a good test.
Q: So why do they say dispersant isn't a seafood threat?
Some dispersant chemicals are FDA-regulated ingredients in skin creams
and even foods. FDA contends the stronger cleansing ingredients under
question degrade too quickly in water to accumulate in fish flesh. In
experiments under way in Texas and Alabama, federal scientists are
dumping dispersant into tanks full of shrimp, oysters and crabs to try
to detect even minute levels.
Still, some critics say a test is needed.
this as comprehensive as possible,' says Susan Shaw of the Marine
Environmental Research Institute in Maine. 'It's trying to make sure the
needle in the haystack is not there.'
But the dispersant broke
oil into smaller, easier-to-absorb droplets, meaning oil tests would
detect seafood exposed to lots of dispersant, Dickhoff said.
believe the science is very compelling that there is not a human health
concern for fish consumption with respect to dispersants,' added Donald
Kraemer, who oversees FDA's Gulf seafood testing.
The PAH testing reassures Maryland's Mitchelmore: 'At the end of the day, the oil is the toxic entity.'
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.