BP Disaster at One Year: Calling for Improved Seafood Safety Testing and Assessment

The BP oil spill disaster spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into one of the most productive fisheries in the United States.  Contaminants in oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can cause cancer, and toxic heavy metals, can accumulate in the food chain contaminating seafood and leading to health risks, particularly for people who eat a lot of seafood. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) testing and assessment of Gulf seafood is riddled with the same inadequacies that plague this agency. These flaws include ignoring the science, relying on an inadequate testing program, and failing to be transparent.  Over the past year, FDA’s assessment of gulf seafood has baffled scientists, angered Gulf Coast residents, confused the public, and failed to protect vulnerable populations.

Failing to Follow the Science

FDA used outdated science and faulty assumptions in its safety assessment of Gulf seafood.  This resulted in benchmarks for safe levels of oil-spill related contaminants that greatly underestimate health risks from oil spill-related contaminants, particularly for pregnant women and children.  My colleague, Dr. Gina Solomon, has blogged on this before.  To recap, FDA:

  • Assumed that seafood consumers weigh 80 kilograms (about 176 pounds), whereas many women and all children weigh much less.
  • Severely underestimated how much seafood, particularly shrimp, Gulf Coast residents eat. In response, one Gulf resident hooted, “4 shrimp (FDA’s estimate of how much a person eats in a week) doesn’t even make a po’boy sandwich”.
  • Ignored the cancer risks of naphthalene, a major contaminant in oil, despite the findings of the National Toxicology Program.
  • Failed to address the special vulnerability of pregnant women and children to contaminants despite a growing body of scientific studies demonstrating increased impacts.
  • Allowed for a higher level of cancer risk than after previous oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill
  • Assumed only 5 years of contamination, despite evidence of longer-term contamination after previous spills

FDA’s safety assessment, thus, ignored standard risk assessment recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Academies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and modern scientific best practices.

Inadequate Testing

In 2008, 1.27 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish were harvested by commercial fishing from the Gulf of Mexico.  To assure the safety of this resource, FDA relied on the results of very few samples – 67 shrimp samples in coastal waters and only 6 of these were taken in coastal Mississippi.  Another 112 samples were taken by NOAA in offshore areas which makes a total of 179 shrimp.  With approximately 23 jumbo shrimp to a pound, this means between 7 and 8 pounds of shrimp that were tested -a very small fraction of what is harvested from these waters each year.  By not testing enough seafood, particularly in the coastal waters, it is very difficult to assure that FDA didn’t miss some hotspots of contamination. 

FDA’s testing program is also missing some contaminants.  Harmful heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury are found in crude oil and can accumulate in seafood but are not currently part of FDA’s testing program.  In addition, independent testing of Gulf seafood since the spill has found high levels of other petroleum hydrocarbon contaminants besides PAHs.  The health threat of these findings has not been studied despite the fact that concerns were raised by FDA’s own scientists after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Lastly, the FDA has failed to implement a comprehensive long-term monitoring program that enables the comparison of contaminant levels over time.  See my previous blog for more information on the need for a comprehensive long-term Gulf seafood testing program.

Public Accountability and Transparency

Although the FDA has developed a website to help explain the safety of Gulf seafood, there are huge gaps in the information available to the public.  For example, nowhere on the website can you find a detailed, scientifically justifiable, description of the design of the testing program. Information on how the sampling sites were chosen, the number of sites tested per state, or the rationale for determining when there was a sufficient quantity of samples is missing.  

As reports of fishermen catching tarballs and other oily stuff in legal fishing areas continued to come in this fall, there was a public outcry for more testing.  FDA’s response to ensuring long-term safety is a “seafood surveillance” program for which there are more questions than answers.  Results of Phase I have been posted and a spreadsheet labeled “Phase III” is also there.  Phase II?  Who knows?  How did FDA determine how many samples to take or where would make the most sense to test?  Where is the information that enables independent scientists to review and assess the design of this program? If this testing is supposed to reassure the public about the safety of Gulf seafood, why are there so many questions and so few answers?

Prior to the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico supplied approximately 30 percent of the seafood consumed in the US, including 73 percent of the national total for shrimp and 67 percent of the oysters.  This is a national resource, and the main food source for communities up and down the Gulf Coast, which needs to be adequately safeguarded.  FDA’s failure to adequately ensure the safety of Gulf seafood and protect vulnerable Gulf Coast populations is a clarion call that the safety net protecting our food supply from chemical contaminants is seriously frayed.  Urgent reforms are needed at FDA to ensure safe food on the table from Venice, Louisiana to dinner tables across the country.

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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