More Gulf Seafood Testing Needed: A New Study Critically Reviews Seafood Safety Policies and Protocols Following the BP Oil Spill

According to a new study, additional and improved testing of Gulf seafood is needed to track contamination and ensure public health protections following the BP Oil Spill disaster.  This study provides solid evidence to support community concerns that the testing of seafood, particularly in coastal waters, is woefully inadequate and that a comprehensive long-term monitoring plan is needed.  However, it disappointingly falls short of its claim to provide a more “conservative” assessment of the safe level of oil-spill related contaminants in seafood and continues to underestimate risks to vulnerable populations.

My colleague, Dr. Gina Solomon, and I have blogged before on how the toxic stew from the BP oil spill can contaminate seafood and threaten public health, particularly for people who eat a lot of seafood, and the pressing need to improve testing and assessment of Gulf seafood to protect vulnerable populations. 

This new study, published online by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, took a close look at the testing done in the Gulf and compared it to other oil spills and the science on oil-spill contamination.  Some of the noteworthy findings include: 1) Gulf seafood should be tested for heavy metals 2) that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed a higher level of contamination to be considered “safe” after the BP disaster than following other oil spills 3) a long-term comprehensive testing plan is needed that covers all types of seafood,  includes an adequate number of samples from all impacted areas, and measures all of the relevant contaminants (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, and dispersant chemicals) 4) improvements are needed in community engagement and communication and 5) guidelines should be developed to standardize seafood safety assessments and make them more health protective.

Implementation of these recommendations is critical to protecting public health from oil spill-related contaminants. However, it’s important to note that the researchers omitted some critical science from their analysis and some of their conclusions fall short of what’s needed to protect pregnant women and children.

First, the cancer risks of naphthalene, a major contaminant in oil, were not included in their risk analysis despite the findings of the National Toxicology Program and testing data showing elevated levels in Gulf seafood. Secondly, they did not properly address the special vulnerability of pregnant women and children to contaminants despite a growing body of scientific studies demonstrating increased susceptibility. When it comes to exposure to contaminants, like PAHs and metals from the oil spill, these populations are at increased risk of adverse health impacts and extra safety factors must be included when setting health benchmarks. Lastly, the authors’ suggestion that the PAH levels measured in gulf seafood since the spill are similar to levels measured in areas not impacted by oil spills cannot be supported by the available data.

More than a year past the anniversary of the explosion at the BP drilling site that caused this disaster, the images an oil soaked Gulf have faded from the public’s eye. Yet, the legacy of this contamination continues to threaten ecosystems and human health and more testing and more studies are urgently needed.