Proposed water quality standards won’t protect human health

It’s high time Washington updated its water quality standards. The current state rule is based on 40-year-old data, and we lag behind Oregon, which recently set the strongest water quality standards in the country. Yet the proposed updates, which opened for public comment on Jan. 12, do little to improve protection for Washington residents who eat local fish.

Water quality standards rely on a complicated formula that sets limits for various pollutants based on the average amount of fish residents eat from Washington waters (fish consumption rate, or FCR) and allowable cancer risk rate, or the amount of cancer or other health hazards that lawmakers deem “acceptable” for residents consuming local fish at the high end of the FCR.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department of Ecology have raised Washington’s FCR from a measly 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day to better protect consumers. However, with that increase comes a tenfold increase in cancer risk, from one in a million to one in 100,000. Taken together, these two changes counterbalance each other, leaving levels of many toxic chemicals, including PCBs, mercury, and arsenic, exactly the same.

This is cause for serious concern. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Washington, and there should be no allowance for more cancer in our communities. The decision to raise cancer risk also unfairly impacts communities that rely on local fish, which includes tribal members, Asian-Pacific islanders, and commercial and recreational fishermen.

Numerous industries profit while polluting the environment and ultimately our food.

This cannot be considered progress. The Clean Water Act demands “water quality criteria sufficient to protect the most sensitive of the uses,” and yet the increased cancer risk rate means that high fish consumers are not receiving those protections. And there are many high fish consumers in our state.

Ecology’s research on fish consumption in 2012 revealed that many tribal members eat over 700 grams of fish per day, and up to 380,000 Washington adults eat over 250 grams per day. More worrisome still are the statistics for children, who have greater sensitivity to many toxins. At least 29,000 Washington children eat over 190 grams of fish per day.

For decades, we have had water quality standards that do not adequately protect Washington citizens. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure an environment and food supply that are healthy and safe.

It’s time now to make a positive change, and that doesn’t come without an investment. Either we pay the up-front cost by investing in better water quality treatment, or we will pay in costs to our health, to our livelihoods, and to the richness of our local waterways.