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Legacy Pollutants and Fish Consumption

The Problem...

Prior to the routine regulation of industrial discharges and waste disposal practices that began in the 1960s and 1970s, a wide variety of toxic compounds were disposed of either by direct discharge into lakes and rivers or by disposal in landfills, many of which subsequently leaked into waterways. Since then, these originating industrial wastewater discharge and landfill sources of toxic pollutants have been largely addressed and loadings of PCBs, dioxins, mirex, DDT and other organic toxics, pesticides and heavy metals have been significantly reduced or eliminated.

However these persistent toxic chemicals continue to in contaminate lake and river sediments in waters all across the state. They move from sediments through the aquatic food chain and accumulate in fish. This contamination results in health advisories that prohibit or limit the consumption by humans of fish taken from affected waters.

The Significance...

Legacy pollutants that result in fish consumption restrictions have been identified as a major source of contamination in 20% of all impaired waterbodies identified in New York State. These advisories typically restrict consumption of certain species of fish to either none at all, or no more than one meal per month.

In addition to waterbody-specific advisories, a general health advisory that recommends limiting consumption of fish from any water of the state to no more than one meal per week is also in place. This precautionary advisory reflects the understanding that some chemicals (including PCBs) are commonly found in New York State fish and that not all waters of the state have been tested.

Specific Waters...

Fish consumption advisories that are the result of legacy contamination occur in waterbodies throughout New York State. Advisories for specific waters include many of the largest and most well-known waters: Hudson River, Lake Champlain, Saint Lawrence River, New York Harbor, and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. These advisories are generally the result of known legacy discharges of contaminants. Less stringent precautionary advisories for nearly all waters of the state, as well as additional precautionary restrictions for children and women of childbearing age, are also in place.

What is Being Done...

Contaminated sediments in waterbodies are, by their nature, diffuse sources of pollution. Consequently remediation of these sources and the restoration of fish consumption in these waters is often difficult to achieve. However, remediation activities are currently underway at sites throughout New York State. NYSDEC oversees the State Superfund and Brownfields cleanup programs and actively assists USEPA with Federal Superfund projects. The most notable of current large-scale remediation efforts linked to current fish consumption restrictions are in the Upper Hudson River and in Onondaga Lake. Other recent remediation efforts include the Grass River in Massena, Cumberland Bay on Lake Champlain, and a number of other sites on various smaller waterbodies. Remediation is planned for Utica Harbor along the Mohawk and in Eighteenmile Creek in western New York.

An extensive monitoring and modeling effort to identify the sources and movement of toxics within the New York Harbor (The Contamination Assessment and Reduction Program, or CARP) was completed in 2007 and is currently being used to develop toxic contaminant reduction strategies.

More Information

Additional information on this topic can be found from the Important Links in the upper right-hand column of this page.

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    Albany, NY 12233-3500
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