Gulf seafood to be tested by California lab


Nearly three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, there are signs that BP may contain the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and a UC Davis laboratory is preparing for the work to come.

One of eight state and federal labs tapped by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to assess the safety of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, the Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis has received $140,000 worth of equipment from the FDA in preparation for the testing.

“We’re planning on having the whole process in place by next week,” Linda Aston, chief chemist, said Thursday during a news conference at the on-campus lab. Seafood samples from affected areas in the gulf will arrive shortly afterward. If the tests come back clean, various waters may be reopened to fishing.

This round of tests is a part of the biggest seafood safety effort ever undertaken, said Christine Patrick, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman.

The oil rig exploded and collapsed April 20. NOAA, which has teamed up with the FDA and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a multilevel consumer safety response, began closing gulf areas to fisheries May 2. As of Thursday, the fishing ban had grown to cover 84,000 square miles, or 35 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government has declared a commercial fisheries disaster for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“The word to describe the boundary is ‘precautionary,’ ” said Patrick. It is based on the oil’s known and projected locations and includes a buffer for added caution.

“Fishing closure is the most important step to protecting seafood safety,” she said.

Crude oil is composed of hundreds of chemicals, not all of which are harmful to our health. Tests target a particularly worrisome group of naturally occurring compounds called polyaromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are present in cigarette smoke and charred meat, and many are known to cause cancer.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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