A recent fish sampling study conducted by Columbia Riverkeeper found high levels of toxins in fish from the Columbia River.

The advocacy and watchdog group reported Monday that five different fish samples, which were caught by fishers who intended to take them home to eat, showed high levels of heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), flame retardants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

“These are fish that people were taking home to feed their families,” Lorrie Epstein, water quality director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said Monday. She said fish tissue samples are a good indicator of the pollutants that are building up in local waterways.

Columbia Riverkeeper said ethnic, immigrant and low income populations were most commonly eating fish with unsafe levels of toxins.

Samples showed a walleye from the Multnomah Channel had 175 times the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended PCB limit for unlimited consumption. A shad caught near Bonneville was found to have flame retardants and heavy metals and a carp caught near Vancouver, Washington, contained PCBs, mercury and flame retardants, as well as other heavy metals.

Columbia Riverkeeper's findings aren't new.

In 2008 and 2009, a study was commissioned by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to measure toxicity levels in fish from the middle Columbia River region. The findings resulted in a fish consumption advisory from the Oregon Health Authority and Washington State Department of Health. Health officials advised the public to limit consumption of resident fish species from the middle Columbia River due to “moderate levels” of mercury and PCBs.

The DEQ looked at smallmouth bass and sucker fish samples.

Photo Credit: COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER PHOTO - Fishermen fish for shad on the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam. A recent sample of fish caught from the river shows high levels of toxins in fish tissue.

This month's findings mark the second round of fish testing conducted by Columbia Riverkeeper. The first study was done in 2012.

Aaron Borisenko, chief water quality manager for the DEQ, said contaminats that bioaccumulate in fish come from a number of sources.

“A lot of them are legacy contaminants that have been identified or banned back in the 1970s, however, there are still some that are present in the environment,” Borisenko explained. He said inks and dyes on products packaged and shipped from other countries can make their way into water bodies.

“PCBs are very stable compounds,” he noted. Other chemicals, like flame retardants, are commonly used in furniture and some cleaning products, which get washed into streams and rivers.

Epstein noted fish that spend part of their lives in the ocean, like steelhead and salmon, contain lower levels of toxins. While the OHA considers those fish to be generally safe to eat, Epstein said the steelhead she tested contained mercury at levels the EPA would recommend not eating more than once a week.

She worries that some people will ignore the advisories.

“People are choosing to ignore the advisiories either because they have to to feed their families, or for cultural reasons,” Epstein said. “You're not going to get sick tomorrow, but some of these [toxins] can cause cancer. Some of these longer term issues can be hard to wrap your head around.”

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