A call for changes in the Food and Drug Administration’s seafood-testing procedure in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was not news to activists and independent scientists, many of whom have been lobbying national authorities for months over the protocols.
“I’ve been requesting over and over that we redo the calculations and adapt to the dietary habits of the people on the coast,” said chemist Wilma Subra, president of Subra Co., a New Iberia lab and environmental consulting firm. The company has been testing all types of seafood as well as the sediment in the aftermath of the spill.
“The FDA protocol is absolutely 100 percent inadequate,” said Peter Brabeck, an environmental monitor for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “No question about it.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council released a nonscientific survey last week showing that Gulf residents eat far more seafood than the amounts used by the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine the level of concern over potentially cancer-causing contaminants in seafood as a result of the BP oil spill.
“I really do have concerns about the safety of the seafood,” Subra said. “And a lot of it centers around the FDA calculations of what people consume in terms of amounts of seafood. They then use those assumptions to come up with concentrations for concern for PAHs.”
The PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are potentially cancer-causing chemicals found in oil the FDA is currently testing for. It is estimated that about 200 million gallons of crude oil and 2 million gallons of dispersants were left in Gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April.
PAHs have been found in Gulf seafood since then, Subra said, and they matched the oil from the Macondo well. But according to the FDA, they have only been found in levels deemed safe.
The levels are being measured against a national average of consumption; in terms of shrimp, that translates into one meal a week as small as 3 ounces, or about four jumbo shrimp. The Natural Resources Defense Council survey showed that many Gulf residents consume three to 12 times that amount.
The Louisiana Department of Health, which is responsible for testing, follows FDA protocols.
NOAA spokeswoman Christine Patrick said there have been no reports of tainted seafood and that the safety standards are overly cautious.
After trying for months to get an answer from the Unified Command, FDA, EPA and NOAA about which parts of the shrimp are being tested, activist Nancy “Mac” McKenzie bought 2 pounds of shrimp off a dock in Venice on Oct. 22. She then sent the digestive tracks, along with a stock she made from the heads and shells, to a lab in Alabama.
“The lack of trust came from the fact that I couldn’t get an answer on sampling. I was getting transferred all over the country,” McKenzie said.
The lab results showed there was “organic matter as hydrocarbons” or, as written on the chemical analysis report, “oil and grease” in the digestive tracks in the amount of 193 parts per million.
When she tried to find out whether that is an acceptable amount, McKenzie was again unable to get an answer.
She also made a stock from the heads and shells, just as she would normally do when buying shrimp. “It was disgusting, ” McKenzie said, of the sticky orange residue she describes as “sludge” left in the bottom of the pan. “I couldn’t get it off my hands.”
When the results for the stock came back from the lab, the report showed that, based on current guidelines, the PAH levels were below the level of concern. She is awaiting the results on clean shrimp obtained before the spill to provide a better benchmark.
The official response to McKenzie from Coast Guard Public Information Officer Lt. Cmdr. C.T. O’Neil was: “Oil and grease analytical methods, such as those employed to test the sample you submitted, cannot distinguish between petroleum oils and any other fatty materials including those fatty materials that naturally occur in shrimp.”
Testing takes time and is expensive, said McKenzie, whose nonprofit NOLA Emergency Response is entirely volunteer run. The small staff is paying for the tests out of their own pockets.
Testing kits promoted
The Bucket Brigade is also trying to support the communities most affected by passing out kits that will let residents do their own testing of seafood. Brabeck recently did so in Grand Isle.
“They are feeling disenfranchised and for good reason,” he said. “They want to test their own seafood, and by passing out the kits, they have a voice now. They don’t have to rely on information from BP or the federal government.”
“It’s common knowledge that people in the Gulf love their seafood,” said Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Gina Solomon in the survey. “Yet despite this, FDA has been setting safety standards for cancer-causing chemicals based on nationwide seafood consumption rates – failing to take the uniqueness of the regional diet into consideration. And this is a problem, because it means that current FDA standards may also be failing to adequately protect many people in the Gulf.”