Ohio has cut its program that warns the public about how much and how often pollution-contaminated fish should be eaten.
The Ohio Department of Health abolished its fish-consumption advisory program earlier this month to save $100,000. It's the first Great Lakes state to eliminate the alert, environmentalists said.
Advisories have been based on fish samples collected annually by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Fish are tested for pesticides, mercury and other toxic chemicals.
The Ohio EPA will continue to assess fish samples to evaluate which waterways are meeting goals of the federal Clean Water Act. But the Health Department will no longer assess the effect of contamination on humans, because the staff member dedicated to that task has been reassigned.
Also, the state will no longer print consumption advisories on posters and brochures given to anglers when they buy fishing licenses.
"We're not saying it's now safe to eat the fish, what we're saying is we don't have the resources to provide this service," Health Department spokesman Jay Carey said.
Pollution has contaminated the sediment in many Ohio streams, rivers and lakes. These chemicals build up in a fish's fatty tissue.
Warnings based on data collected over the past five years will remain on the department's Website, www.odh.state.oh.us/alerts/fishadv.pdf.
According to the site, "contaminants in fish can be harmful to people of all ages, but the fetus and young children are especially sensitive to contaminants because their organs and systems are not yet fully developed."
The site says that health effects can include birth defects as well as mental and physical retardation in newborns. "Mothers who eat highly contaminated fish for many years before becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn," it adds.
Neither the Ohio EPA nor ODNR plans to pick up the Health Department's role.
"It's leaving a void," said Ohio EPA spokeswoman Kara Allison.
The Health Department had to cut $12.3 million from its budget as part of state budget cuts. The Health Department chose to preserve core health programs, such as immunization of children, Carey said.
Environmentalists called it a bad choice.
"It isn't like the fish are any safer to eat, but they are dropping the advisories," said Jim White, who heads the Cuyahoga River RAP (Remedial Action Plan).
"Advisories builds awareness that there are still water quality problems," White said.
This will only further erode the public's knowledge of the chemicals that have contaminated fish they are eating, said Eric Uram, regional representative of the Sierra Club's Midwest office.
The Sierra Club released a report in 1996 that said most people were unaware that fish consumption advisories even existed. Numbers were higher among women and minorities.
Michigan drastically cut its fish advisory program this year. It went from printing 1 million color brochures to 10,000 in black and white.