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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Hook, line and sinker: Tackling harmful health risks of fish contamination for anglers, greater community

Angling for education, safe consumption habits, environmental change
Caroline Crowley

Zelda Wiley sat with two fishing poles, a cooler and a small cart jam-packed with food, bug spray, towels, a fishing net and spare clothes. She smiled beneath her camouflage ball cap and sunglasses as she leaned her fishing poles up on the wall of the Monona Terrace.

Ever since she was young, Wiley has fished to relieve anxiety. She smiled as she fondly recalled the memory of fishing with her mother as a girl.

“We fished all the time, she would bring us out … we’d just fish all night long,” Wiley said. “It was awesome.”


Wiley grew up fishing in Milwaukee. Now, due to concerns with the water quality in her hometown, she travels to Madison to cast her line.

“Now that water’s contaminated,” Wiley said.

Though the water in Milwaukee has more contamination than the water in Madison, the reality is both areas contain dangerous amounts of toxins. These toxins, in turn, are taken up by the fish — as a result, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration recommend limited consumption of most species of fish.

These consumption guidelines don’t just impact people who catch their own fish — they can extend to the fish at the grocery store, too.

But, according to a new study performed by the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, only around half of Great Lakes residents are aware of fish consumption advisories.

Further, the study found that racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to exceed these limits and were less aware of the advisories in the first place.

Eating contaminated fish can have dire consequences for human health, yet many remain unaware of these risks. Combating the problem of contamination through prevention and education is crucial to avoid the lethal impacts of eating contaminated fish.

From Minamata to Monona

In a small fishing town located on the Yatsushiro Sea in the spring of 1956, a five-year-old girl had convulsions. She struggled to walk or speak. Within the same spring, her sister fell ill.

This was the earliest documented illness from fish consumption, located in Minamata, Japan.

That year, early studies discovered 55 incidences of the illness, resulting in 17 deaths. Over the next 50 years, there would be more than 3,500 claims of cases of Minamata disease in Japan.

According to the Japan Medical Association, Minamata disease is the result of methylmercury poisoning. In Minamata, mercury poisoning occurred as a result of the chemical companies Chisso and Showa Denko, which dumped methylmercury into the sea. This mercury proliferated through the fish and led to the contamination of thousands of people.

Mercury poisoning can result in poor muscle control, tunnel vision, problems speaking, hearing impairment, tremors, burning or prickling sensations on the skin, the loss of smell and more. 

Jon Meiman is a chief medical officer and state epidemiologist at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services who has studied fish consumption and education about related health guidelines. Meiman said the largest source of mercury is the burning of coal.

After mercury is released into water, it accumulates in fish and shellfish — these animals condense the mercury, Meiman said, contaminating the larger predators that feed on them with a higher level of mercury. Because it is released into the atmosphere, mercury can be found everywhere on Earth.

“It’s been that way as long as we have been using mercury or burning coal, which is a primary way of mercury getting into the environment,” Meiman said. “What it does, it ends up in the wildlife and accumulating in fish … Basically, the concentrations increase the higher you get up the food chain.”

Humans are the final link in this food chain.

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You Are What You Eat

Toxic chemicals such as mercury can irreparably damage the human nervous system.

Humans absorb almost 100% of methylmercury into their bloodstream, according to the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health.

But mercury isn’t the only contaminant of concern for anglers. Other chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are also prominent contaminants. 

Though PCBs were banned in 1979, they still persist in the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fish are a main route of human exposure to PCB contamination.

PCBs are carcinogenic and may lead to worsened immune systems, decreased birth weight for fetuses, damaged nervous systems and more, according to the EPA.

PFAS are contaminants of more recent concern, Meiman said. These chemicals can lead to impacts on the liver and cholesterol. They can enter the environment through several products, like firefighting foam and common household items such as food packaging.

“For PFAS, that’s a much bigger topic,” Meiman said. “We’re not talking about one chemical, we’re talking about thousands.”

Mercury and PFAS can be found around the globe, Meiman said. Mercury can travel through the atmosphere, meaning it is found everywhere, while PFAS can travel through the groundwater.

PCBs are a more local contaminant, Meiman said, which mostly come from industrial discharge and remain in the area to be taken up by wildlife. In Wisconsin, PCBs are prevalent in areas that were historically used for paper mills.

Additionally, different species of fish can carry different loads of each chemical. According to Public Health Madison and Dane County, all fish contain mercury. Carp and catfish contain higher levels of PCBs and white bass, bluegill and crappie have the highest levels of PFAS.

PHMDC suggests that people beyond childbearing age should only eat walleye, pike, bass, catfish and other species once per week. This group should only eat musky once per month.

Contaminants are especially dangerous for fetuses and young children — after it’s absorbed, mercury can easily accumulate in the brains of fetuses or in breastmilk.

According to the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, mercury poisoning in fetuses and infants can cause growth problems, severe impairments to mental functioning, decreased lung function and birth defects.

“[For] young children, developing fetuses during those critical periods of development, exposure to contaminants like these can have a much bigger impact compared to, say, an older adult,” Meiman said.

But children under the age of 15 and those of childbearing age should still eat every species of fish once per week or less — bluegill, crappie, yellow perch, sunfish, bullhead and inland trout should be eaten once per week, according to PHMDC. Walleye, pike, bass, catfish and all other species should only be eaten once per month, and musky should never be eaten.

Certain lakes in Wisconsin have different advisories from PHMDC — for adults, carp located in Lake Wingra and Lake Monona should only be eaten once per month, and other Dane County and Madison waters have specific suggested limits on bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass, northern pike, pumpkinseed, walleye and yellow perch consumption.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources created a guide for eating fish in Wisconsin, which contains general suggestions for fish consumption as well as a map of information about lake- and river-specific contamination levels.

Lake Michigan and the rivers in the Milwaukee area have elevated concentrations of PCBs, while bodies in the Madison area have elevated levels of PCBs and PFOS.

No species of fish in Lake Michigan is spared from a consumption guideline due to PCB contamination.

Angling for Equality

“[Catching and eating fish is] culturally important for all different groups throughout the state and an important source of nutrition for people,” Meiman said. “And so we want to make sure that people can continue to do that, but do it safely.”

Fishing is important to many cultures surrounding the Great Lakes, some of which have better access to educational information than others. For some groups, there is a language barrier. In other cases, information is just inaccessible or unavailable.

In one of his studies for the DHS, Meiman found that most Burmese immigrants in Milwaukee were unaware of fish consumption guidelines due to a lack of information in languages other than English. As a result, the levels of mercury and PFAS in their blood were several times higher than the U.S. average.

In a study from the American Fisheries Society, African American anglers reported eating double and triple the amount of fish compared to Hmong Americans and white people. Hmong Americans were found to prefer species with higher levels of contamination and were ultimately exposed to the same amount of contaminants as African Americans.

Though the majority of anglers in this study did not eat more fish than recommended, most of them shared fish with family members — one-third of anglers reported providing fish to children.

The African American participants of the study knew less about health advisories than other racial and ethnic groups.

Troy Winters, a Black angler, lives in Milwaukee and has worked at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center for about 20 years. He’s married, with six children and seven grandchildren. Winters fishes to relax and get away from the city, but he cooks and eats his catch with friends.

“I love it,” Winters said. “It’s relaxing, so it relaxes my mind and gets me away from everything …  I’ve got a bunch of guys that we get together and they let me do all the frying of the fish. So we catch them and we cook them and we eat them.”

Winters mainly catches crappies, bluegills and bass. He fishes in Lake Monona every year, where PHMDC recommends consuming only one meal per month of crappie and largemouth bass. Bluegill should be consumed up to once per week.

Though Winters was fishing in contaminated waters for contaminated fish, he was unaware of the warnings from PHMDC about dangerous levels of fish consumption.

Despite the dangers associated with fishing in contaminated waters, there are ways to prevent and address this contamination.

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All Hands on Deck

There are three strategies Meiman said that, when combined, can prevent harmful exposures to contaminants.

The first two strategies are to prevent and address environmental contamination. PCBs were banned in 1979, according to the EPA. But PFAS and mercury are still being produced around the world. 

According to the EPA, mercury is emitted into the air through mining and fossil fuel combustion. PFAS are still widely released through waste facilities, the use of firefighting foam and other processes. As a result, these chemicals can be found in an array of food products and the environment.

Preventing and addressing environmental contamination is a gargantuan task despite global efforts. 

Scientist for Clean Wisconsin Paul Mathewson said there are initiatives to remove the PCBs that remain in Wisconsin’s environment by dredging the bottoms of lakes to remove PCB-contaminated sediments. But this process comes with a tradeoff — releasing some of the contaminants into the water.

Katie Johnson, a Black angler from Milwaukee, has been fishing for over thirty years. She refuses to fish in Milwaukee and travels to Madison and other waters in Wisconsin to catch fish from cleaner water.

“I guess they be trying to put something in it to take care of it but I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think any of that stuff’s working.”

The main initiative to prevent mercury contamination is reducing the use of coal and fossil fuels on a national scale, Mathewson said.

When it comes to PFAS, the DNR created an action plan with other agencies. But Mathewson said legislation surrounding PFAS is complicated — some legislation attempts to address single PFAS compounds of the thousands in existence. This strategy would require thousands of regulations to adequately address the PFAS problem.

Instead, Mathewson said it would make more sense to phase out PFAS. Though some compounds are essential for certain medical products or to put out high-intensity fires, legislation can target unnecessary PFAS used for luxuries.

Ultimately, though consumers can vote for officials who support legislation to prevent contamination and choose to purchase items that don’t use coal, fossil fuels or PFAS compounds, Mathewson said the weight of this contamination should not fall on the individual.

“To the extent that [a person can] voice support for that and let their elected officials know that that’s what they want, I think really I’m not sure what else they can do … These are systemic things and the onus shouldn’t be on the individual,” Mathewson said.

For many, education is the only way to avoid these contaminants.

Meiman’s final strategy is to provide the public with education and tools to avoid exposure.

“Once people are given the right education, delivered in the right way, delivered by the right people, it does make an impact,” Meiman said. “It does end up resulting in not only changing consumption patterns but choosing safer fish, preparing in safer methods or in certain cases, when needed, reducing the overall amount of fish consumed.”

Educational efforts are ongoing. The Wisconsin DHS is partnering with the EPA on another education project, Meiman said. To ensure positive results, Meiman said the team has formed a community advisory board to shape the project.

Current education methods have worked for some anglers, though. Johnson strictly follows DHS advisories and doesn’t share her catch with other people.

Education and environmental change are essential for the safety of future generations. With the correct education and safe consumption habits, fishing can be a safe and healthy experience.

“It’s relaxing, stress-free, calming, that’s why I love it,” Johnson said.

“[It] gets me away from everything … I just love being out on the water,” Winters said.

“You get the pressure off your head to just vent out,” Wiley said. “It’s down time for me.”

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