Government scientists told a congressional panel Thursday that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is now safe to eat, even though no tests have been conducted on fish in the most toxic waters and new tests have not been developed to measure all of the effects of dispersants on fish.
The scientists also said that despite recent claims that most of the oil from the BP spill has disappeared, between 75 percent and 90 percent of the oil remains in the Gulf in some form.
The comments came at a special hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Bill Leher, senior response and restoration scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said Gulf seafood in stores and restaurants is safe to eat, but added that no tests have been conducted on fish in the most contaminated Gulf waters, which remained closed to fishing.
"Every seafood sample from re-opened waters has passed sensory and chemical testing for contamination of oil and dispersant," Leher told Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "No unsafe levels of contamination of the seafood has been found."
Donald Kraemer, acting director of the Center for Food Safety at the Food and Drug Administration, agreed. He called the components of the dispersant Corexit, a solvent used to break up oil, "unlikely to present a food safety concern." Kraemer said that while some components of Corexit are considered toxic, fish have not shown a propensity to accumulate the substances in their muscles.
The first note of caution in the hearing came from Paul Anastas, the EPA's witness, who warned that while limited tests have not shown dangerous levels of toxins in fish from dispersants, "the potential longterm effects on aquatic life is still largely unknown."
When Vicki Margolis, another FDA scientists, revealed that the FDA has only conducted tests for the effects of one element of Corexit, Markey seemed shocked.
"You're sitting here as the FDA, representing the public's interest in determining whether or not these fish are safe to eat, it is without having completed the study in terms of these actual chemical components inside the fish, is that right?" Markey asked.
FDA's Kraemer explained that because many of the untested components in the dispersant are commonly found in lip gloss and over-the-counter drugs, the government assumes the danger from ingesting them should be low.
"We believe that the fish coming out of the Gulf do not have levels that are of concern," he said. When pressed by Markey, he said the levels are estimates for a 170 pound man, and not for children, pregnant women or other more vulnerable people.
At several points in the hearing, witnesses from NOAA and the FDA deflected questions to each other. When no witness could tell Markey whether the federal government is monitoring seafood for high levels of heavy metals like mercury, which comes from oil, Markey equated the two agencies to a "regulatory black hole."
The nothing-to-worry-about tone of the first panel changed radically when a second panel of witnesses, made up of scientists and Louisiana fishermen, toldl Markey about their experiences.
Dean Blanchard, the largest dockside shrimp broker in the U.S., said he eats Gulf shrimp most days, but has a hard time convincing some customers at his business in Louisiana that the seafood is safe. "When I try sell seafood, I tell people the government said they did thousands of tests and they say everything is all right," Blanchard said. "And they say, is that the same government that said 1,000 barrels a day was leaking out of the well?"
The vice president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, Acy Cooper, said he does not trust the government's statements either, especially claims that most of the oil is out of the Gulf. "NOAA keeps saying the oil's not there," Cooper said. "But we know it's there."
Witnesses also said that BP should not be allowed to pull out of the Gulf based on its assertion that the recovery phase of the disaster is over.
"We understand that the government wants to turn the corner and wants to signal that the Gulf is on its way to recovery," said Lisa Suatoni of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "However the facts simply do not bear that out. There is still a huge amount of oil in the environment."