Are the fish in the Schuylkill edible? Pollutants: Myth or Reality?

Hello, readers!

I have received many e-mails over the past few months with the same topic: "Is the fish from the Schuylkill River edible?" I've answered all those e-mails with the same response: "No, they are not edible!" Even so, it seems to me that some people did not trust my judgement when it comes to this idea. Therefore, I've finally decided to emphasize this topic with scientific data and write a full post on the subject here. After all, the topic of fish consumption is very important and should be known. 

First, I'm posting this photo that I've received a couple days ago. The photo portrays a fellow fisherman (CJ Jones) at the Fisherman Statue, which is located right next to the Fairmount Dam:

CJ Jones holding a 4.5lbs, 22.5 inches White Sucker.

Charismatic smile. Heh. CJ didn't mention how the fish was caught and what bait he used. It's very interesting to know that White Suckers are actually present at the Fairmount Dam area, especially since they are an unusual catch for the Schuylkill River. 

As a matter of fact, White Sucker fingerlings are constantly preyed by other species of fish (i.e. Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Muskellunge, Walleyes, etc), which is one of the factors that makes them rare in big Rivers. Another factor is related to their migration: they travel from location to location based on the different seasons of the year, giving anglers a hard time to find them consistently. Also, they adapt very well to different bodies of water and can survive under extreme circumstances -- for example, waters with low oxygen concentration, high pollutants and PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyl), etc.

Therefore, congrats on your capture, CJ! And thanks for sharing the photo with us.

Now, let's go to the main topic of this post, which is about the different kinds of pollutants in the tidal Schuylkill River -- from the Delaware River to the Fairmount Dam, and about the edibility and quality of the fish in this specific body of water.

First, it's good for readers to know about the type of pollutants that we are talking about here. After all, some people consume the fish even without knowing exactly what is inside of it. Even worse -- others know about it, and even so, they still ignore the fact that they are contaminated. 

Sadly, the truth is that people often hear rumors about these contaminants through peers and locals; but they don't usually search for its supporting scientific evidence. this topic really a myth or reality? Are the fishes really not edible because there are pollutants in them? Are they really contaminated? On the other hand, are people taking the fish consumption for granted? Are they basing themselves on rumors, meaning that the fishes are actually edible?

Worry not, readers...By the end of this post, your questions will be answered! Hopefully you will walk out of this blog today being a little bit more knowledgeable when it comes to the types of pollutants that are present in out local waters, and also a little bit more conscious minded when it comes to consuming "Wildly Caught Fish." 

First, here's a list of the different pollutants that may be found in different bodies of water around Philadelphia. There are many of them in reality; however, only two of them will be discussed in this post (the most important ones, of course):

1. PCBs. From an online dictionary: "Any of a family of industrial compounds produced by chlorination of byphenyl, noted primarily as an environmental pollutant that accumulates in animal tissue with resultant pathogenic and teratogenic effects."

Of course I wouldn't just give you guys -- the readers -- an online definition, right? After all, what exactly is the definition of "Chlorination of Byphenyl," "Pathogenic," and "Teratogenic"?

So, let's go step by step:

Chlorination of Byphenyl: I won't go too far into the chemistry here. The important facts that you need to know are related to the consequences of this "Polychlorinated Byphenil processing." It's a FACT that they are all chemicals derived from Byphenyl, which is a toxic chemical substance. PCBs are not only toxic, but also carcinogenic (i.e. help you form cancer cells), and non-biodegradable (i.e. they don't break down and tend to accumulate inside a living organism).

Pathogenic: "capable of producing disease." 

Teratogen: "a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects." 

Putting everything together: different variations of PCBs are present in our local waters. They accumulate inside different kinds of fish (mostly bottom feeders), and they stay there until the fishes die and disintegrate, since PCBs are non-biodegradable (they don't break down). Once we consume the contaminated fish, the PCBs are transferred to our body; thus, staying inside of us until we die. In "good" amounts, the PCBs residing in our body can cause us cancer, fetal malformations in pregnant women, and probably other kinds of chronic diseases. Sincerely, folks; this is how bad PCBs are and many people are not aware of them whatsoever...

Below here are a couple links about PCBs in the Schuylkill River, containing scientific evidence of this toxin in our waters: 

This link is related to different Species of fish in the Schuylkill River, focusing on Suckers! It also includes the White Sucker that we cited previously. I felt an urge to post this hyperlink here because many people harvest the Common Carp from the Schuylkill River -- which is a Species of fish that is highly contaminated with PCBs and possibly other contaminants (i.e. heavy metals).

This is a link of a very old newspaper called "The Reading Eagle/Reading Times." This was issued on March 11, 1994. The purpose of posting this link is to show readers that this is not a problem that "started yesterday." This is an on-going issue that has been originated many decades ago! Even though the quality of the Schuylkill River water increased since the 1900's, the quality of the fish didn't improve much (as you may have read in the first link above). If you read this article carefully, you will realize that the fishes were not supposed to be consumed back in the days at all. You may go to page 13 to read the article on the Schuylkill River. 

This link is a more recent article, posted on 2009. The reason for this link is to show readers where these toxins really came from. Unfortunately, a big part of this is really due to our capitalistic society. "Toxic Chemical Discharge" from different companies is a serious issue, and thankfully we have many environmental lawyers dealing with these kinds of situation nowadays. However, it's still hard to track and control it. 

2. Heavy Metals. From an online dictionary: "Heavy Metals are metals and metal compounds that may harm human health when absorbed or inhaled. In very small amounts, some heavy metals support life. But when taken in large amounts, they can become toxic."

All the information that you need about heavy metals and its consequences to human beings can be found here

Also, here are some other links related to the Schuylkill River:

Link 1: It's good for the readers to read page 7-10 on this document, which shows how heavy metals are actually found in soils near bodies of water; not to mention that the contaminated soil cited in the document is directly related to the Schuylkill River.

Link 2: Page 116-117 talks about AMD (a.k.a. Acid Mine Drainage) and a bit about heavy metals in the mining sections of the Schuylkill River. In response, the management is installing limestone drains to remove heavy metals from the water. Note that AMD refers to the outflow of acidic water from metal or coal mines! The "outflow of acidic water" looks like this

February 25th, 2013 -- Yellow Boy flowing into Meadow Lake, Philadelphia, PA.

Thus, if you ever observe water flowing on top of an orange bed of Iron, keep in mind that acidic water from abandoned mines is flowing in there! 

Below, I've decided to post a couple links about fish consumption specifically for the Schuylkill River as a reminder of how dangerous it's to constantly consume them from it:

The Boat and Commission fish consumption list is an awesome source of what not to consume! Note the 1 meal/month for certain species of fish in the Schuylkill, and the "DO NOT EAT" warning for other certain species, such as the American Eel.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) PCB Total Maximum Daily Load document is another wonderful hyperlink. Give emphasis to page 15, where it describes historically the meals per month of certain species of fish for the Schuylkill River.

Of course the level of toxins varies from fish to fish. Their size plays a big role on it, since a fish's size defines its age. Therefore, it's highly recommended to eat fish within the limitations set by the Boat and Commission and the EPA guide. It's important to note that eating those fish constantly will certainly not make a person sick "right away." In other words, the effects are rather chronic than acute! This is one reason why anglers and folks keep eating contaminated fishes without a second thought -- they believe that just because they are fine after eating the fish, everything will be okay. Be careful! That is a very bad misconception! Recall: PCBs can cause cancer and Heavy Metals can cause all kinds of nasty illnesses once above their toxicity levels.

Myself, I would definitely not eat it at all.

This is a good post to show readers that fish these days are still contaminated in many of our local bodies of water! It's a shame that pollution has reached almost every body of water in PA, but that's the bad reality that we have to face. Hopefully our generation and future generations will keep track of these issues, rising the quality of aquatic life around here. As for now, the answer to the main question is: "No. The fish in the Schuylkill River are not edible, and the pollutants are not a myth. They are very very real."

However, as people say (a cliché, always!): "What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel." I'm not really a cliché person, but I think that this sentence really explains a lot here. As far as folks don't know about the consequences of consuming these fish, the definitions of the different toxins in our waters, etc; they will continue to consume it. Therefore, me spread the word around.

Let's do our best to be healthy, and help the aquatic environment get better!

Best of luck for all of us!

Long days and pleasant nights,


Leo S.