Toxics Threaten Public Health, Fish and Wildlife

Studies on the Columbia River show high levels of toxic pollution in certain species of fish, such as sturgeon and bass. In turn, the states of Oregon and Washington have issued fish advisories warning people not to eat certain types of fish in specific areas of the Columbia River. Toxics are moving up the food chain.

Toxic pollution threatening the Columbia includes:

  • heavy metals, such as mercury from factories and coal burning
  • so-called “legacy pollutants,” such as PCBs, DDT, and TCE that are leaching from industrial sites
  • emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting chemicals from city wastewater plants.

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, for some Native Americans, who eat up to 11 times more fish than other Americans, the risk of cancer from Columbia River salmon may be as high as 1 in 500. Risks are even greater for those who eat mostly sturgeon. Examples of other studies on toxic pollution in the Columbia include:

  • From 1989 to 1995, the Lower Columbia River Bi-State Water Quality Program demonstrated that water and sediment in the Lower Columbia River and its tributaries have levels of toxic contaminants that are harmful to fish and wildlife. Toxic contaminants are moving up the food chain and accumulating in the bodies of animals and humans that eat fish, according to the study. People who eat fish from the lower Columbia over a long period of time are exposed to health risks from arsenic, PCBs, dioxins and furans, and DDT and its breakdown products.
  • From 1991 to 1992 EPA and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) found 92 different toxic pollutants in fish consumed by tribal members. The study found PCBs, dioxins, furans, arsenic, mercury, and DDE, a toxic breakdown product of DDT, in the fish.
  • In 2009 EPA released an in-depth report on toxic pollution in the Columbia, the Columbia River Basin: State of River Report for Toxics. The report highlighted the widespread problem of toxic pollution in the Columbia’s fish, wildlife, sediment, and water.

A federal study by the United States Geological Society in May 2012 found more than 100 toxic substances are making their way through wastewater-treatment plants into the Columbia River.Learn more about the groundbreaking study here.

1Reconnaissance of Contaminants in Selected Wastewater-Treatment-Plant Effluent and Stormwater Runoff Entering the Columbia River, Columbia River Basin, Washington and Oregon, 2008,