WWF: Baltic fish are contaminated

  • 2005-01-26
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The World Wildlife Fund said this week that fish in the Baltic Sea may be too contaminated with toxic chemicals to sell on the EU market.
WWF officials, who made their announcement Jan. 25, said they wanted to lobby a chemical control program for the Baltic Sea currently under debate in the European Parliament.

Called REACH, (Registration Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), the legislation would phase out the use of some hazardous chemicals and promote the development of a sustainable chemical industry.

The REACH legislation will be the first of its kind where companies will have to give safety data before getting authorization for a chemical, Ninja Reineke a senior policy officer for the DetoX campaign run by the World Wildlife Fund said.

They added that European legislation has failed to keep up with the advent of new hazardous chemicals that are outside the rules governing the environment.

Europeans who have eaten fish from the Baltic Sea likely have also taken in toxic chemicals along with their seafood, the WWF is claiming. Last year blood tests were offered to members of the European Parliament and some national ministers, including from Latvia, Estonia and Lith-uania. In general the tests showed contamination across the EU, yet the message from the WWF is not to strictly avoid eating Baltic seafood but in some cases to limit the intake.

Janis Brizga director of the environmental politics program for the local branch of the WWF, said that contamination of the Baltic Sea is a global issue. He added that indigenous people whose diet relies largely on fish have high levels of toxicity in their bodies.

The report also points out that many new chemicals are currently polluting the Baltic, with many types of fish contaminated with flame retardants and polyborminated dipehynethers (PBDEs). The latter has been been found in Baltic herring at nearly 50 times the rate of those found in the Atlantic.

The local NGO sector and the government have supported stricter government control, Brizga said, and five of nine Latvian MEPs at the European Parliament have already signed a pledge in support of proposed legislation.

The European Parliament recently began debating the legislation, which was submitted by the European Commission a year ago.

The Baltic Sea is almost entirely within the EU and is a European responsibility says the WWF. Since there is little inflow of fresh water, the sea is extremely sensitive to environmental contamination. Compounding the problem is ice, which covers parts of the sea in winter and degrades the chemicals at a slower rate. As a result, some chemicals can remain in the sea for 25-30 years.

The toxic chemicals have even affected some fish species ability to reproduce.

Speaking on behalf of the European Commission at the Europarliament's plenary session on Jan. 24, Environment Commis-sioner Stavros Dimas said, "The benefits of REACH outweigh the costs clearly, and the costs can be made even more manageable."

He was supported by Gunter Verheugen, commissioner in charge of enterprise and industry, who said, "Anyone who thinks the new commission is less committed to REACH than its predecessor is wrong."

Dimas also warned MEPs that science doesn't "know enough about the chemicals 's some of them might have dramatic effects on people's health."

Business interests voiced concerns that if too stringent a piece of legislation is passed it would harm profits, the economy and in some cases force businesses to relocate.

All countries bordering the Baltic Sea are a part of the EU, save Russia, which is unlikely to have been the producer of many of the new toxic chemicals the WWF is concerned about. "These [chemicals] are from the daily products of Western societies," said Reineke, citing disposable goods such as computers or sofas. Chemicals given off by computers can be washed right into the water system she added.

Sweden, which has been a champion of the legislation, has been warning women of child-bearing age not to eat Baltic herring and salmon in large quantities due to chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs.

Brizga supports adding a warning label to fish that may carry limited amounts of toxins in Latvia.

However, Sweden and Finland are two countries the EU has given permission to sell salmon with higher than allowed quantities of dioxins, according to the WWF.

Since the existing legislation has proved insufficient for new challenges the WWF is hoping that the REACH program will be adopted and even improved by the European Parliament.

The contamination comes from air pollution, water runoff from factories, other waste but how the flame-retardant chemicals enter into the Baltic Sea is still unknown says Julian Scola part of the World Wildlife Fund's DetoX campaign in Brussels.

Despite the decrease in the levels of chemicals like DDT and dioxin over time, the Baltic Sea remains a polluted body of water, partly since new chemicals have taken their place.

"The Baltic Sea is heavily contaminated, and without new legislation the outlook is pretty bleak," Scola added.