msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/24/2004 3:55:47 PM ET 2004-08-24T19:55:47

States issued 3,094 advisories in 2003 — up from 2,800 the previous year — because of polluted fish, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday in its annual report on fish advisories.

As a result, the EPA said, more than one-third of the nation’s lakes and nearly one-fourth of its rivers contain fish that may be contaminated with mercury, dioxin, PCB and pesticide pollution.

“It’s about trout, not tuna. It’s about what you catch on the shore, not what you buy off the shelf,” said EPA chief Mike Leavitt. “This is about the health of pregnant mothers and small children, that’s the primary focus of our concern.”

Leavitt emphasized that monitoring by state officials is increasing, while pollution levels, particularly from mercury, are dropping.

Even more in future?
But he also said that nearly every time state officials check for pollution, they find it, meaning that eventually almost the entire United States could have fish advisories.

Leavitt said emissions of mercury from human activities dropped about 45 percent from 1990 to 1999, but he did not provide more recent figures. Pollution from mercury comes from industry such as coal-fired power plants, the burning of hazardous and medical waste, and production of chlorine. It also occurs naturally in the environment.

“I want to make clear that this agency views mercury as a toxin. Manmade emissions need to be reduced and regulated. There has been an appropriate, heightened public concern,” Leavitt told reporters in his office.

In 2003, 44 states had a fish advisory for mercury, a persistent substance that affects the nervous system. Two more states, Montana and Washington, added statewide advisories to warn of the potential for widespread contamination of fish.

The EPA national list for 2003 shows 48 states issued 3,094 advisories — up from 2,800 the previous year — because of polluted fish. Two states, Wyoming and Alaska, had no such monitoring.

Activists want tougher rules
Environmentalist groups described the latest figures as troubling.

“From Maine to Montana, from Florida to Washington, people can’t eat the fish they catch without risk,” said Felice Stadler of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Bush administration proposed earlier this year to require utilities to cut mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018, a deadline that environmentalists say is too generous to the industry and too risky for public health.

"These alarming advisories underscore the need for aggressive control of mercury polluters, such as power plants, but the Bush administration's air pollution policies have been dangerously weak," John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air program, said in a statement.

Details on the state advisories are online at www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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