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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Reeling In Many A Meal On The East River, And Maybe PCB's
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
June 29, 2003
Alfredo Castellano stabbed his hook through a hunk of raw fish and cast bait and sinker toward Queens. Then he sat next to his wife, Carmen, their backs to the thigh-high retaining wall separating them from dense traffic on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
The sun had just dipped behind the housing projects of East Harlem, offering slight relief from the evening swelter. Their 7-year-old son, Giovanni, jumped and giggled, dodging his friend Jasmine, 11, as she swung in a hammock strung between a plane tree and a lamppost.
Sure, the Castellanos said, they catch fish from the East River. Maybe two or three times a week, they catch them and eat them. Giovanni does not like fish, but Ms. Castellano allows that she probably ate it when she was pregnant with him.
"I eat them all the time, and I never got sick," she said. "If it was dangerous, there would be signs out here, right?" There are no signs in sight. "It doesn't worry me," she said.
Maybe it should.
The State Health Department regularly publishes advisories warning that because of PCB contamination, most adults should eat fish caught from the East River no more than once a month and should avoid eels entirely. The state says children under 15 should not eat any of the fish, nor should women of child-bearing age, whose bodies can store the toxins and pass them on to their children during pregnancy or while nursing. Similar advisories apply to the waters of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, New York Harbor, and to many rivers and lakes around the state.
A recent report showed that of more than 200 people interviewed at East Harlem centers for the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, one in 10 ate locally caught fish. The report, by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was published this month in the Journal of Urban Health.
"A lot of the people we talked to who were receiving fish from the local water were aware, in some form, of the health advisories," said Laura Bienenfeld, a clinical instructor who was one of the authors of the study. "But that didn't mean they were aware of how it could affect their children, or that they understood how persistent these toxins can be in our bodies and our environment."
The study showed that most people who ate local fish broiled or grilled it, reducing the PCB concentration by melting off the fat that stores the chemicals most readily. Fewer fried it, which would retain the fat and a higher level of PCB's.
On a warm day, especially in the evening, the thin strip of paving stones and grass along the river in East Harlem bristles with fishing rods, and so does the southern edge of Wards Island, a short hike across a pedestrian bridge. Fishermen and they are, nearly all of them, men crowd every bench and patch of shade, telling stories, drawing on cigarettes, waiting for a tug.
People can be found fishing almost anywhere on the city's many shorelines, but the waterfront alongside East Harlem is one of the busiest, thanks to a combination of economics, geography, culture and misinformation.
Poverty plays a role, of course; pulling a meal from the river is cheaper than buying it at a market, and some anglers earn a few dollars by taking their catch back to the barrio and selling it. And few poor neighborhoods in the city offer as ready access to the water as East Harlem.
Many people talk of fishing as a pastime picked up during childhood in Puerto Rico or in the Dominican Republic. In fact, some say they fish just to fish, and throw back what they catch.
"I'm from Santurce, in Puerto Rico; my father was a fisherman, and I've fished all my life," Ramon Rivera, sitting at the tip of Wards Island, said with a laugh and a shrug. "I don't eat them. I just like to fish. It's what we do."
But many of the people who eat fish from the East River have only a vague comprehension of the peril, or none at all. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB's, were used as insulation in electrical equipment until the 1970's and were dumped into some of the nation's waterways, notably the upper Hudson.
They settled into the underwater silt and were slowly buried over time. The concentrations in the water dropped over the years, but the advisories remain. PCB's are thought to pose a risk of cancer and, with prenatal or early childhood exposure, of developmental disabilities.
"These fish aren't from here, they come from upstate or somewhere, and then they swim over here, so they're safe," one fisherman, Ponce Rome, said, incorrectly.
"We've been eating them for years, me and my wife," he said, showing off his catch for the day, a gorgeous, two-foot striped bass and a 16-inch bluefish with a mouth full of tiny, needle-sharp teeth. "We eat this fish maybe once a week more this time of year."
With all the publicity given to PCB's in the Hudson, there is a widespread but mistaken belief that fish from only that river are dangerous.
Jose Santana, sitting under a tree with his 17-month-old daughter, Julia, said he fished on the East River twice a week. He said his wife, Diana, had not eaten local fish when she was pregnant, but had beforehand and while nursing.
"Bluefish I don't worry about those are good," he said. "I heard the striped bass could be dangerous, so I usually don't eat those." Other fishermen insisted it was the other way around. In fact, the advisory applies to all species.
A police car rolled slowly up the walk, and the officer behind the wheel said he had heard of the health advisories, though he did not recall the specifics.
"I come by here every day and I tell these people, `I wouldn't be eating what I catch here,' " he said. "But they keep coming back."