Controversy Erupts Over PCBs in the Great Lakes

Published June 1, 1997

EPA and the state of Michigan are locked in an increasingly bitter battle over whether public health officials of the upper Midwestern state should issue a special health advisory warning residents of possible dangers emanating from minute residues of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) present in Great Lakes fish.

The controversy was triggered last October when officials from EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wrote Michigan Governor John Engler saying that, “we are especially concerned that pregnant women, other women of child-bearing age, and children under 15 years of age will be subjected to unnecessary risks to their health unless we honor their right-to-know about the risks of fish consumption in the Great Lakes.”

Another letter was sent to Governor Engler on January 2, this one from Robert Perciasepe, assistant administrator at EPA’s office of water, Barry Johnson, assistant surgeon general and assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and Lynn Goldman, assistant administrator of EPA’s office of pollution prevention and toxic substances. Urging Engler to release a fish advisory, the letter spoke of the “mounting weight of evidence of significant adverse human health impacts from exposure to PCBs through consumption of contaminated fish.”

In an angry response to the three federal officials, Governor Engler informed them in a February 5 letter that he had consulted leading scientists across the country to review the issue, including Dr. Michael Bolgar, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Dr. Joseph L. Jacobson, whose work was cited five times in documents federal officials forwarded to Engler earlier this year. Both scientists concluded they saw no reason for altering Michigan’s stance on issuing a fish advisory.

“Politics Instead of Science”

“I am certainly open to considering new data and scientific information,” Governor Engler wrote, but I will not be bullied into positions based on politics, instead of science.”

“You have simply taken studies that experts have already reviewed, extracted your own opinions, blended that with other studies whose limitations would be clear in peer review, and claimed that the results have enough value to change a policy developed from science,” he continued. “You would needlessly restrict the health benefits derived from fish consumption for a significant portion of Michigan’s citizens.”

The war of words, and nerves, escalated on February 12 with a tersely worded letter to Governor Engler from EPA Administrator Carol Browner. Browner wrote that she was “concerned that the people of Michigan may be once again entering a new fishing season without specific fish consumption advisories that are fully protective of their health.” She informed Engler that she had directed EPA’s Perciasepe to be available to work with the state of Michigan to craft an advisory based on the Protocol for a Uniform Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory.

“Please be advised, ” she concluded, “that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to move forward to protect the public’s right-to-know if Michigan remains unwilling to act.” There the matter currently rests, with neither EPA nor Michigan state officials apparently ready to back down.