After a two-year study of toxic mercury levels in fish, state officials Monday issued six new consumption advisories, with more expected in the coming months.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Wildlife Resources and Department of Health jointly released a 52-page report that advises all adults, pregnant and nursing women and young children to limit eating three species of trout found in six water bodies in Wasatch, Washington, Iron, Garfield and Emery counties.
"I'm not surprised. I'm concerned," DEQ assistant director John Whitehead said of the report, completed April 11. Utah now has nine mercury-related consumption advisories on nine waterways scattered across the state.
The new advisories are for brown trout from the Jordanelle Reservoir in Wasatch Count, the Weber River near Morgan and Calf Creek in Garfield County; rainbow trout from Upper Enterprise Reservoir in Washington County and Newcastle Reservoir in Iron County; and splake trout from Joe's Valley Reservoir in Emery County.
Sampling conducted by the state Health Department determined methylmercury levels in the fish exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of .3 milligrams per kilogram.
Ed Kent, chairman of the Utah Anglers Coalition, said he expects to see more such advisories.
"This has been a persistent problem for a long time," he said. "It's like asbestos was 25 years ago and lead-based paint 10 years ago. It is an issue that we are becoming more aware of because more research is being done to find out how expansive and pervasive the problem is."
The sampling conducted in 26 counties between 2004 and 2006 was "opportunistic" - that is, DEQ staffers sampling water quality also caught fish that were skinned and filleted for Health Department testing.
Because some of the samples were too small, or showed too large a gap in methylmercury levels, DEQ will re-sample several waterways, Whitehead said.
Mercury is a highly toxic element that occurs naturally in the environment but also has been introduced through human activity.
Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury pollution in the world and continue to spread mercury through the atmosphere.
Utah's industrial and mining past has exposed the Great Salt Lake and other waterways to mercury pollution. Gold mines in northeastern Nevada, upwind of Salt Lake City, have reported releasing large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere.
Inorganic mercury evaporates easily. Rain redeposits it on land and in water bodies, where it is changed to its organic form - methylmercury - which in turn "bioaccumulates" in animals and humans who eat the animals.
Methylmercury affects the human nervous system, and is most harmful to fetuses and young children because it can cause developmental and neurological problems. Recent studies also have linked mercury exposure to autism, Alzheimer's disease and increased risk of heart disease in men.
DEQ began testing fish in earnest for mercury after a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey scientists studying the Great Salt Lake found alarmingly high levels of methylmercury. While DEQ is working to identify where the mercury comes from, the agency has yet to zero in on sources - though officials suspect the pollution is airborne and falls to Earth even without the help of rain or snow.
"There are a lot of sites and areas where we don't have a problem. It's not just one part of the state," Whitehead said. But there are hot spots, including three reservoirs in the southwestern part of the state and the Escalante River watershed.
"We'd like to find out if there's something going on locally," he said. "Is it local geology? Is there something with the airshed? Is there legacy mining in the area?"
Roger Wilson, sport fishing coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said his agency will focus on those hot spots.
"Our intent is to be up-front with the public and post the risk information," he said. "The thing to remember is that the advisories can change based on the most recent samplings."
Wilson said there has been no evidence that consumption warnings have affected the purchasing of fishing licenses. He said the state wildlife agency sold 30,000 more fishing licenses, ranging from 1-day resident to 365-day nonresident permits, in 2006 than in 2005.
"If people are concerned about, or reach, the consumption warnings, they can always practice catch-and-release fishing," Wilson said.
Kent said he didn't know whether the new announcement would curb angling activity.
"You can go anywhere in the state, the nation and the world and do the same sampling and find the same problems; that's how widespread this problem is," he said.
State epidemiologist Wayne Ball said the advisories kept to the EPA standard as a matter of public health, and were based on recreational fishers' consumption.
"These are the amounts you could safely eat over a long period of time," Ball said. "So if you ate more than the limit, but then don't eat any for a month or two, your body does eliminate the mercury."
Ball added that he expected to issue more advisories as the sampling program continues.
According to the 2005 Utah Angler Survey, prepared by Utah State University for the Division of Wildlife Resources, 78 percent of anglers fishing for "keep-sized" cold-water species - mostly trout - release what they catch.
"I don't think we should raise the flag and sound a screeching alarm at this point," Kent said. "We need to make the public aware that this is a problem that is going to continue to expand and make them aware of the potential health risks involved."
"I don't think we should raise the flag and sound a screeching alarm at this point. We need to make the public aware that this is a problem that is going to continue to expand and make them aware of the potential health risks involved."ED KENT, chairman of the Utah Anglers Coalition
* For a complete copy of the report: http://health.utah.gov/epi/enviroepi/FishHgStatewide2007Final.pdf
* For a list of fish advisories in Utah: http://www.deq.utah.gov/
Where Utah's mercury advisories are:
The Utah DEQ has issued new fish consumption advisories for Utah's waterways. Anglers are urged to limit their consumption of certain species of fish from these waters.