THE EFFECTS OF WATER POLLUTION ARE WORSE THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT

October 15, 1978

Not many fishermen will ever hear of Aquatic Pollutants and Biologic Effects, with Emphasis on Neoplasia, much less pay $52 for a copy, but this 604-page paperback, consisting of papers presented at a 1976 conference held by The New York Academy of Sciences, is of tremendous significance not only to fishermen but also to anyone who drinks water from a lake or river.

Nowadays pollution means far more than dumping human wastes into a body of water. Water treatment plants can stop the danger of infectious waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, but they do not eliminate the host of toxic chemicals that have been spewed into the environment in the post-World War II industrial boom. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic, and because scientists generally agree that 60% to 90% of all human cancers are caused by environmental agents, the study of aquatic pollution takes on critical importance. As Dr. H.F. Kraybill of the National Cancer Institute remarks in his editor's introduction to Aquatic Pollutants, "The realization that neoplasms [new and abnormal formation of tissues, as in tumors] are occurring in finfish and shellfish and that a tumor incidence may appear to be associated with the extent of pollution introduces a new dimension...in terms of human cancer." In other words, if fish and clams are getting tumors, what's happening to humans?

In one paper, Dr. John C. Harshbarger, director of the Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals at the Smithsonian, notes that "...the frequency of fish neoplasms has increased substantially" since the 1940s when the production of synthetic organic chemicals began to soar. Harshbarger points out that most fish with neoplasms are bottom feeders; this is presumably because carcinogenic chemicals adhere to sediments that have settled.

The paper by Dr. R.A. Sonstegard, then at the University of Guelph in Ontario, reads like a scientific detective story. Sonstegard compared fish he caught in the 1970s—and he collected 50,000 in the Great Lakes—with specimens of the same species collected for museums years earlier. He examined goldfish-carp hybrids found off the mouth of the Rogue River in Michigan in 1952. None had tumors. By contrast, the hybrids he collected two decades later at the same site showed "tumor frequencies as high as 100% in older males." According to Sonstegard, this indicates that since the early 1950s "either chemical or a battery of environmental factors that have oncogenic potential have been discharged into the Great Lakes."

Sonstegard also studied the white suckers in the Great Lakes, which occasionally suffer from cauliflower-like tumors known as papillomas. Because white suckers with papillomas on various parts of the body have widespread geographic distribution, it was thought that these sporadic tumors were a natural part of the scheme of things. Not so. Sonstegard's studies in Lake Ontario showed that the tumor incidence increased greatly in areas with a variety of industrial and domestic wastes, such as Burlington Harbour where an inordinately high proportion of the suckers (29.6%) had papillomas. Wrote Sonstegard, "It is particularly relevant that the frequency of occurrence decreased drastically in collections made at varying distances in both directions from this region."

The potential danger of polluted water to humans comes from two sources. Some researchers, notably Dr. Robert H. Harris of the Environmental Defense Fund, have indicated a possible relationship between cancer mortalities of white males in New Orleans and the fact that they drank water drawn from the Mississippi, a veritable chemical cocktail. "Although the results of the New Orleans study cannot yet be considered as conclusive evidence that cancer is, in fact, being caused by contaminated water," Sonstegard writes, "these very suggestive findings must be fully taken into consideration."

Another danger to humans—and it is one that is potentially far greater—comes from eating fish taken from polluted waters. Fish can accumulate, or "bioconcentrate," chemicals at levels much higher than those in the surrounding water. In the discussion that follows Sonstegard's paper. J.J. Black remarked that he and his colleagues at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo calculated that "you would have to drink water from the Great Lakes for about 2,000 years to consume the quantity of potential carcinogens that you obtain in one 500-gram serving of Great Lakes fish."

But cancer is not the only deleterious result of polluted water. After summarizing some case histories (e.g., the infamous methyl mercury poisoning in Japan that caused congenital cerebral palsy and the lead in the water pipes of Glasgow that was suspected of having caused lowered IQs in children), Dr. Robert Miller of the National Cancer Institute added, "From the foregoing, it is clear that contamination of water has shrunk the size of newborn babies, starved others of oxygen, pustulated the skin for years in persons of all ages, caused bones to ache with every step, and addled the brains of newborns, children, and adults. With this array of adverse effects on the integrity of the human organism, is there really a need to invoke the specter of cancer to achieve clean water?"

Good question.

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