St. Clair County considers testing all waters to ensure fish are safe to eat

News-DemocratApril 3, 2014 

Health concerns about eating fish caught in local waterways have St. Clair County Board members considering testing all of the county's waters where residents cast a line.

The proposal was prompted as a precautionary measure but follows a recently released state report showing polluted water has crippled wildlife in 13 streams and lakes in the county.

The Property and Recreation Committee has asked county staff to research how much such testing would cost.

Testing would assure residents locally caught fish will not make them sick, according to County Board member June Chartrand, D-Dupo, who chairs the committee.

The board members' concerns are similar to those of state health officials who have continually cautioned against eating too many fish from lakes and rivers in the metro-east. The fish consumption warnings are issued by the state's Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program, a team of staff from the state's Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Public Health.

Program Chair Tom Hornshaw said researchers test waters under a state fish advisory every two to four years to "make sure advice we are giving out is still current." Those advisories include some local lakes and rivers, and a statewide warning against children and pregnant women eating predatory fish, such as bass or catfish, caught in Illinois.

The warnings stem from health concerns surrounding too much mercury in the fish, which may cause serious damage to the nervous systems of children and developing fetuses. Another health concern is eating fish living in water polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls. Fish absorb the manmade chemicals used as insulating fluid in electrical equipment.

In St. Clair County, the Illinois Department of Health advises against eating more than one meal of catfish or carp per week caught within Frank Holten State Lakes in East St. Louis. The two lakes at Frank Holten park, Whispering Willow Lake and Grand Marais Lake, have a combined 208 acres of water and are stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish.

Warnings also accompany fish caught in the Mississippi River near Cahokia. Residents are advised not to eat more than one small catfish per week or one large catfish per month out of the Mississippi River.

In Madison County, state officials advise limiting fish consumption in Carlyle Lake, Horseshoe Lake in Madison and Highland Silver Lake.

Hornshaw said his team also tests for a suite of pesticides known to be harmful. "If they were going to test for chemicals we have tested for in our program, that would be a waste of money. Depending on what they thought they needed analyzed, though, it might be a good use," Hornshaw said.

Chartrand said she was very concerned about the issue because of reports fish in neighboring states caused residents to become ill. She also plans to ask St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly whether untested waters pose a potential liability for the county, Chartrand added.

An estimated cost to test local waterways was not available.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tests less than half of the major streams and lakes in St. Clair County. A vast majority of that testing only determines whether the water can support aquatic life, not whether fish can be safely eaten.

The agency found pollution has crippled fish and animal life in 13 streams and lakes in St. Clair County, according to a recently released draft of a federally required report. Seven streams were found healthy enough to support wildlife.

The draft shows testing results for 20 of the 47 major streams and lakes in St. Clair County. Small tributaries are not tested.

The results of the report mirror those of a report completed in 2012.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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