Peril of Ocean Fish Diet Minimized : Waste Dischargers’ Scientist Cites Some Comparable Risks

Consumers who daily eat 10 ounces of fish caught near Laguna Beach may be running less of a health risk than are people who drink one diet soda containing saccharine each day, those who eat four tablespoons of peanut butter a day or those who live at high elevations (where sun exposure is increased), an environmental specialist said during a recent talk at the Orange County Marine Institute.

David Brown, a senior environmental specialist with the regional Southern California Coastal Water Research Project Authority, fielded questions for more than an hour after addressing more than 100 citizens last week9 at the institute in Dana Point. The talk was arranged, organizers said, in an effort to present a new perspective on recent news reports on the dangers of eating Southern California coastal fish that, according to Water Research Project Authority studies, may be polluted with DDTs and PCBs (industrially produced toxins that can cause cancer).

Organized by Dischargers

The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project was founded in 1969 by Southern California’s five largest ocean waste dischargers: Ventura County, Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, Orange County and the City of San Diego. Today, approximately 60% of its $1.2 million budget is derived from these entities and about 40% from federal agencies.


In 1980 and ’81, Brown said, the SCCWRP caught and analyzed bottom-feeding fish, including white croaker, from waters around Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Santa Monica Bay proper and off Laguna Beach. The Palos Verdes fish contained high levels of toxins, largely because DDT-contaminated municipal waste was released into the ocean off Palos Verdes over a 20-year period that ended in 1970, Brown said.

He said the study found somewhat lower levels of toxins in the white croaker of Santa Monica Bay (other species of Santa Monica Bay fish contained toxin levels equal to those of the Palos Verdes fish) and much lower levels of toxins in the five species of fish studied off Laguna Beach.

With Southern California fish, “the concentration (of toxins in fish) is roughly proportional to the distance (of the catch) from the Palos Verdes shelf,” Brown said.

The Dangerous Cow


Brown said he believes that people who eat two meals of fish caught near Laguna Beach each week run less risk of cancer than do those who drink a pint of milk a day. (Through their milk, cows can pass on aflatoxin, a naturally carcinogenic mold that sometimes grows on plants that are used as feed, Brown said. Peanuts also sometimes grow the mold, so peanut butter can be a health hazard, he said.)

Twice-a-week eaters of Laguna Beach fish also run less cancer risk than do people who live in masonry rather than wood houses (“there’s natural radiation in stone”) or those who take one transcontinental flight a year (exposing themselves to higher levels of “cosmic radiation”), Brown said.

Audience members, who listened intently to statistical data about relative cancer risks projected for average individuals over 70-year life spans, occasionally broke into laughter as Brown favorably compared Laguna Beach fish consumption to the risks of radiation exposure from airplane travel or living in Colorado (where higher elevations allow more natural radiation). Brown drew all of his relative-risk conclusions, he said, from comparing the SCCWRP study to a 1982 textbook, “Risk Benefit Analysis,” by Richard Wilson and Edmund Crouch of Harvard University’s Energy and Environmental Policy Center.

Brown did not minimize the dangers of eating highly contaminated fish--eating most Palos Verdes area fish is considerably riskier than eating peanut butter or increasing one’s exposure to “cosmic radiation,” he said. However, depending on what fish are eaten and where they were caught, eating fish can be a health plus because eating fish rather than red meat has been proven to reduce the incidence of heart disease in middle-aged men, he said.


Out There Eating Fish

“I stay away from certain species” caught locally (mainly he avoids white croaker--also known as tomcod or kingfish--he said, but he also thinks sand dabs, Dover sole and sablefish are risky), “but there’s a lot of heart disease in my family, so I eat fish,” Brown said. “Hey, I’m out there eating fish, and I’m supposed to be the guy who’s screaming ‘pollution!’ ”

During a question-and-answer session, several audience members said Brown’s presentation had alleviated their worries about eating local fish. A few expressed anger about recent news stories they thought had blown the health risks of eating seafood out of proportion.

One listener, Jim Watts of Dana Point, said he thought warning signs posted on some Los Angeles-area piers last year were too strong. Those signs seem to indicate “you’re going to die if you eat one (fish),” said Watts, who runs a local sport-fishing boat. “Do they put signs up in the grocery stores saying it’s not safe to eat the peanut butter?” he asked.


The signs were posted on piers around the Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Palos Verdes area by the Los Angeles Department of Health Services after the state Department of Health Services issued advisories in April of 1985 about toxin levels in fish found in those areas. Jerry Pollock, a state health services staff toxicologist, said the state still stands by those advisories--particularly for pregnant and nursing women. No health advisories have been issued about Orange County fish, he added.

Each individual should “look at the risks and look at the benefits” to determine what foods to eat, Brown told the audience. “If you came from a family with a long history of cancer, you would be more concerned about the carcinogens (in some fish) than about (the) heart disease” prevention possible through eating a diet high in fish, he said.

Brown, who has worked with the agency since 1980, said SCCWRP monitors the entire coastal area from San Simeon to Ensenada in Baja California, but the agency has focused in recent years on municipal waste disposal points off Palos Verdes, in the Santa Monica and Newport bays and off Point Loma, San Diego.