WASHINGTON – Maryland ranked 43rd out of 46 states surveyed by a national advocacy group on their ability to warn the public about potentially dangerous levels of mercury in fish.
Officials with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group could not say if there is a problem of mercury contamination in the state, but they did say there have been contamination cases in the past — specifically with bluefish in the Chesapeake Bay and striped bass in the Potomac River.
“We’re not saying that people should not eat Maryland fish but that people should have the right to know about mercury contamination,” said Kim Erickson, MaryPIRG’s toxic campaign coordinator.
Erickson noted that if Maryland used the same standards as Delaware, the state would have had to issue 62 advisories between 1985 and 1997, the period studied by the group. As it was, Maryland did not issue any advisories in that time period.
But officials from the Maryland Department of Environment said MaryPIRG incorrectly applied Maryland data to Delaware’s standards.
“In terms of advisories, when we apply our data to Delaware data, we found that there was still no need to issue advisories,” said Rich McIntire, a spokesman for the department.
McIntire said Maryland follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations for issuing mercury advisories, and that the state’s waterways are safe according to those standards.
Maryland requires an advisory when mercury concentration in fish tissues reaches 1 part per million, while in Delaware an advisory is issued when the concentration reaches 0.12 parts per million. Erickson said Maryland needs to lower its standards to safer levels.
“Studies have shown that people eating fish with mercury contamination below Maryland threshold levels do suffer adverse health effects,” Erickson said. “They (Maryland) should lower the threshold.”
She said the high threshold for mercury can especially affect unborn children, because the metal travels through placenta when their mothers eat contaminated fish.
MaryPIRG also criticized the state for the way it would notify the public, should mercury-tainted fish be discovered in Maryland waterways. The group said that current state guidelines call for notices to be posted along affected waterways, press releases to be sent out, fact sheets to be distributed with fishing licenses and information to be posted on the department’s Web site.
It does not require that notices be posted in supermarkets or seafood stores, and the information does not have to be published in the Consumer’s Guide to Maryland Seafood published by the state. MaryPIRG believes those steps need to be taken to protect public safety.
But McIntire pointed out that fish being sold commercially are always highly scrutinized for any contamination. The advisories, when needed, would be directed toward recreational fisherman, he said.
McIntire said he is confident that the state’s protections are adequate and do not need to be changed. “Seafood in the state of Maryland is safe to eat in terms of mercury concentration,” he said.