There are hundreds of anglers like him, District and Prince George’s County residents mostly, who throw lines in the Anacostia and pull out catfish, rockfish and carp for supper, according to a new study. But it says the fish — especially catfish, which bottom-feed in a toxic soup of muck — are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals “that present a health risk” to the people who eat them.
“We can’t say eating catfish out of the river causes cancer,” said Dottie Yunger, a specialist at the Anacostia Watershed Society, one of several environmental groups that sponsored the study, released in October. “We know there are cancer-causing chemicals in the catfish. And we know that eating it over a long time can make you sick.”
Seventy-four percent of anglers in the study said they eat at least part of their catch, and most share it with people who take it home, sometimes to pregnant women and children. This is a major concern, because polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other cancer-causing chemicals detected in fish can affect a child’s mental development.
Catfish were a focus of the study, “Addressing the Risk: Understanding and Changing Anglers’ Attitudes about the Dangers of Consuming Anacostia River Fish,” because they are more often found with cancerous tumors. Sixty-five percent of the 111 anglers interviewed said they caught channel catfish often, and 16 percent said they caught them sometimes. Thirty-three percent said they caught brown bullhead catfish often.
More than two-thirds of anglers who took part in the study were black, 18 percent were Latino and 8 percent were Asian. More than a quarter were born outside the United States. Nearly 65 percent said they fish the river at least once a week in warm weather.
They were less educated than most of the population — 62 percent had no more than a high school or equivalent diploma. A quarter had not completed high school.
Latinos, who often speak Spanish in various dialects from countries where there are no advisories, might regard signs saying eat no more than so many pounds of fish per month as silly, said Jorge Bogantes Montero, a natural resources specialists at AWS from Costa Rica. “You need someone to explain why.”
With a river system with a long history of pollution from sources such as the Navy Yard, the Washington Gas Light Co. and a landfill, the District issued its first consumption advisory in 1989. But only a few signs were posted in the District until after the new study’s release, Yunger said.