Fish from river tainted with contaminants from sewage sludges spread on farms

Fish from river may be tainted
Published: Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 at 11:40 p.m.

Numerous reports in the Decatur Daily recently about problems caused by Teflon by-products in sewage sludge that was spread on farmland in Morgan and Lawrence counties that polluted ponds, wells and soil and contaminated cattle living on the farms piqued my curiosity about what impact it might have had on fish in the Tennessee River.

Several industries in the Decatur area use the chemical PFOA or perfluoroonctanoic acid in their manufacturing process. When the industries discharge PFOA-tainted waste into the Deactur's sewer system, the sludge is contaminated. I suspected that the waste water from the sewage treatment plant that is discharged into the Tennessee River might also be contaminated.

In 2005, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization reported traces of PFOA had been found in the Tennessee River as far downstream from Decatur as Wilson Dam. PFOA is a breakdown product of stain and grease resistant coatings used since the 1950s in a wide range of consumer products including cookware, furniture, food packaging and carpet.

After reading the Decatur Daily reports about the problems with the tainted sewage sludge, I began to wonder if our Tennessee River fish might also have been contaminated.

A call to Neil Sass, a biochemist and toxicologist at the Alabama Department of Public Health confirmed my suspicions. Some fish caught from Tennessee River downstream of Decatur are contaminated with PFOA.

The health department has not issued a consumption advisory for the PFOA-contaminated fish because there are no connections at this time between health problems in humans and eating fish tainted with the chemical.

The lack of consumption advisories provides some relief for the many people who live downstream from Decatur and like to eat fish from the Tennessee River, but does not eliminate the need for concern about the problem.

Based on current science, it appears safe to eat those fish. Sass said that could change as more research is conducted. "We don't know what might happen six months from now."

Government agencies conducting the research into possible links between health problems in humans and eating PFOA-tainted fish must waste no time in completing those tests.

In the meantime, environmental agencies should step up efforts to keep PFOA out of the Tennessee River.

We cannot afford to allow our river to be tainted beyond repair or our residents to be sickened from eating tainted fish.

Staff Writer Dennis Sherer can be reached at 740-5746 or