Eating contaminated fish can be hazardous to people as well as to birds, other fish, and animals. The chemicals found in Bay Area fish are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and damage to the immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. At relatively low exposure levels, organic forms of mercury, which can be concentrated in fish tissue, can cause neurological effects and developmental damage to fetuses. DDT and chlordane, though no longer used, persist in the environment and accumulate in fish (as well as in birds and mammals). They may affect the nervous and reproductive systems, and alter hormone levels. PCBs and dioxin may have neurological, reproductive, and immune effects and are known carcinogens. Children and pregnant women are at particular risk. Contaminated fish can also cause many of these same problems for other fish, wild and domestic animals, and birds.
Fish from San Francisco Bay are no longer sold at retail markets. But they are eaten by many people who fish the bay. The majority of bay anglers -- 70 percent -- are people of color, according to surveys done by Save The Bay, a regional nonprofit bay protection group. Available data indicate that Asians eat bay fish most frequently, followed by Latinos.
A significant percentage of people who fish in the bay -- 42 percent -- had not heard of government health warnings about eating bay fish. They reported eating fish that the California EPA warned against, including striped bass, as well as eating twice the recommended amount of fish from the bay. What's more, rather than eating only the fillet, the recommended part of the fish, they ate other parts as well, including the organs, the most contaminated parts.
Most of the Bay anglers who were unaware of the government health warnings were also people of color, with Latinos the least likely to have heard about the warnings. Indeed, more generally, those who did not speak English were less likely to have heard about warnings than English-speakers. According to a 1998 report by Asian Pacific Environmental Network, less than half of Laotians surveyed had heard of a health advisory warning about eating bay fish.
Before bay fish will be safe to eat, existing "hot spots" in the bay -- places where high levels of toxic sediments are found -- need to be cleaned up. Oakland Bay is one such hot spot, the result of its heavy use as a major port. In the meantime, in order to minimize health risks, better monitoring must be carried out and better mechanisms for informing the public about the dangers of eating fish from the bay must be developed.