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Tribes Open Dialogue on Columbia River Fish Contamination

by Wil Phinney
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 6, 2002

Northwest Indians have opened dialogue among tribal members that presents a paradox: Eating salmon, a traditional food with religious significance and many health benefits, in the face of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that says consumption of polluted Columbia River fish likely causes illness.

The EPA report, combined with a 1994 study by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which showed consumption of fish by tribal members is several times greater than the general public, summarized the chemical pollutants found in fish living in the Columbia River and its tributaries, as well as potential risks of eating those fish.

Four Columbia River treaty tribes -- the Umatillas, Yakamas, Warm Springs and Nez Perce -- have known about the study since initial phases were released two years ago, but have been reluctant to talk about issues that may question tribal heritage, culture and lifestyle. Additionally, tribes are concerned that the information presented in the report -- and what needs to be done about it -- could have legal and political ramifications.

The responsibilities of CRITFC, which represents the four tribes, is limited to fish health and water quality issues, leaving the individual tribes to address human health issues. The Umatillas, with an organized task force, and the Yakamas, with a four-year $800,000 grant, have started presenting the information to tribal members. While dissemination of the information is a high priority for the Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes, they have limited capacity -- no staff or funds yet dedicated to the project.

The EPA study found a total of 92 chemicals in Northwest fish, including DDT -- a pesticide banned more than 20 years ago, along with PCBs and heavy metals. The risk of eating fish, the study said, depends on the concentration of the chemicals, the amount and types of fish eaten, how often fish are eaten and the body weight of the person consuming the fish. A child, for instance, is at a higher risk than an adult because of body size. The report, however, only calculates risk for adults.

The risk of developing cancer from eating contaminated salmon, the study revealed, ranges from 7 in 10,000 to 2 in 1,000, depending on where the fish was caught, the size of the person and how much fish they eat. Tribal members who eat resident fish are at an even higher risk of developing cancer. For some locations where sturgeon and mountain whitefish are eaten in large quantities, the risk of developing cancer is as high as 2 in 100.

The tribes are dealing with an emotionally charged issue, which prompts debate and even argument among members, depending on how they react to the information. Some Indians have gone so far as to eliminate Columbia River salmon from their diet. Others see that as sacrilegious and tantamount to giving up their lifestyle. Still others defend the consumption of salmon for its well-established health benefits.

Meanwhile, an environmental toxicologist from West Richland, who was a member of the tribal data workgroup that evaluated the EPA-CRITFC fish contamination data, has sounded a qualified alarm.

"The amount of risk depends on how much fish a person eats. Tribal members who eat treaty-reserved amounts of fish (documented at amounts up to 2 to 3 pounds per day) are at an alarmingly high risk," said Barbara Harper, Ph.D. "Some exposure levels are high enough that I believe health effects are occurring, although this will be difficult to prove to a statistical certainty in a relatively small population."

Harper said members of the tribal data workgroup were asked not to discuss the data publicly until each tribe had a chance to evaluate the data internally and prepare responses. In a letter to the Confederated Umatilla Journal, Harper said she felt compelled to express her concerns now that the EPA report has been released.

Adults who eat large amounts of fish over their lifetime are at a high risk of developing cancer, but children may be even more vulnerable, Harper said.

"Children eat more per body weight, and their bodies are still developing and are more vulnerable to contamination, so their risk is a high concern," she said. "The concern for children is for the developing nervous system (including threats to learning and behavioral traits) and developing immune systems. These health effects are hard to measure clinically."

The Yakama Nation recently received an $800,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to inform its members about the risks of eating contaminated fish. The money will be used to make videos that explain the issue and to train health-care providers about the risks. Further, committees made up of scientists and tribal members will be asked to develop guidelines for how best to present the information.

Additionally, the Yakamas, with another grant from the National Cancer Institute, intend to review medical charts of 400 tribal members who have or had cancer.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have conducted four public meetings since Aug. 20 to present information about the EPA-CRITFC report. Three of the meetings – two on the Umatilla Reservation and one at Cascade Locks -- drew sparse crowds. A presentation to the Umatilla General Council in August resulted in a debate between people who believe fish are causing illness and those who maintain that the benefits of salmon outweigh the potential risks. Both sides insist that salmon should remain a staple in the Native American diet.

The Umatillas have not taken a position from a policy level, but have staff who, like tribal members, have taken positions on both sides of the issue. Some Umatillas, as well as members from other tribes, say reducing fish consumption to counteract the potential health risks cannot be an option. Others, like Stuart Harris, a Umatilla tribal member who was involved with the study, have turned to other wild game, including deer, elk and turkey, to replace salmon in his family's diet.

At a meeting on the Umatilla Indian Reservation Aug. 20, which included four people from the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, Harris presented a history of the study.

"We've known for a long time the water is dirty," he said. "Elders talk about dipping water from a bucket and drinking it before Celilo Falls was inundated. We know now that fish have pollution from the water and that tribal members eat more fish."

Harris said cancer, relatively unknown in the Indian community 40 or 50 years ago, has become a prevalent health issue.

"Cancer is supposed to be an old person's disease," he said. "Now we're seeing blood, stomach, skin and bone cancer in young people. We're also seeing asthma and allergies we hadn't seen before."

Harris said the amount of chemicals found in fish is so great that an Indian who eats a pound of fish a day would have a 6-in-100 chance of health risk. He extrapolated that ratio out to show that as many as 110 tribal members, among the four tribes' combined population of 1,700, could be at risk.

"Are these people working for Dow Chemical? Are they working in an industry that does not protect them? No. They are simple people, living simple lives and dying of cancer for some reason. We don't know the reason. To link their cancer to a particular substance would require looking at exposure over years and years."

Rick George, manager of the Umatilla's Environmental Rights Protection Program, said developing a strategy about pollution will be "costly and controversial."

Many people are opposed to further reductions of pollution, he said, noting that federal laws do not prohibit pollution, they simply manage it with permits.

"The industry has spent decades fighting more strict pollution standards and it will be the tribes' burden to prove more regulation is necessary," George said, adding that such an effort will require "strong science, law and political will."

The Umatillas, through Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, have a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry designed to address the health issues as a result of releases of hazardous substances from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Funding from that project is being used to educate the public on the relationship between health and the environment, which will include information contained in the EPA-CRITFC report.

The legal issues, human health issues and natural resource issues make this a complicated matter, George said.

"I feel ill-equipped to understand it all. It is the most difficult thing I've ever worked on," he said. "The critical issue is to figure out what to do. The simple answer is to stop pollution, but it requires a complex solution."

Wil Phinney
Tribes Open Dialogue on Columbia River Fish Contamination
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 6, 2002

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