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Your Environment. Your Health.

The Complexity of Communicating Risk in the Context of Fish Consumption

Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH)

June 16, 2016

The Complexity of Communicating Risk in the Context of Fish Consumption

Despite decades of research, evidence-based findings, and publicity about the benefits of eating fish, dietary intake of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) in the U.S. and Canada is low compared with recommendations. Fish are naturally rich in LCPUFAs but are also a dietary source of heavy metals, PCBs, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This webinar highlighted three researchers who are exploring the challenge of communicating risk about eating fish from waters known to contain high levels of pollutants while simultaneously conveying the benefits of fish consumption for human health.

The complexity of communicating risk is compounded further by social and cultural factors among those who are subsistence fishers or who consume fish from polluted waters on a regular basis. The webinar, therefore, also highlighted the cultural considerations of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region; Asians living along urban waterways in the Midwest; and African Americans, Cajuns, and Asians living along the Gulf of Mexico.

The first presentation described the cultural significance of certain types of fish among the Anishinabe people (Native American tribes who inhabit the Upper Laurentian Great Lakes). These tribes are traditionally known as a fishing culture with fish making up 65% of the protein in their diet. Community-based research is being conducted with the Anishinabe to develop risk messaging that will be delivered via mobile phone platforms and that will help tribal members determine how much traditional fish they can safely consume.

The second presentation highlighted Asian Americans in Chicago, who, based on their cultural background, consume various parts of fish that are not normally tested for contaminants. This study explores the challenge of communicating the risk of consuming fish high in PCBs to those with limited English proficiency and/or low literacy.

The third presentation highlighted efforts made to communicate the safety of fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico in months following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In this study, the challenge was to communicate the safety of the fish to communities who not only perceived themselves at risk from the oil spill's chemicals but who also represented several distinct ethnic/racial sub-populations with varying degrees of literacy and proficiency in English.

Together these presentations highlighted the innovative ways in which risk/benefit health messaging can be developed and the importance of community engagement to ensure that such messaging is appropriately conveyed to affected communities.



Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D.

Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D., received his doctorate in human and ecological risk assessment from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and he currently serves as a research scientist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He has conducted research on the health benefits vs. risks of fish consumption, and he currently is serving as the Principal Investigator of an NIEHS grant examining fish consumption and environmental health literacy among the Anishinabe.

Susan Buchanan, M.D.

Susan Buchanan, M.D., is clinical associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago’s School of Public Health and also serves as director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. She currently is serving as Principal Investigator of an NIEHS-funded grant titled “Promoting Healthy Seafood Choices in Asian Communities.”

Andrew Kane, Ph.D.

Andrew Kane, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental & Global Health, and he is also the director of the university’s Aquatic Pathology Laboratory. He seeks to understand the effects of chemical or environmental stressors upon aquatic species and to use these species as proxies for interpreting environmental impact and potential effects upon human health and well-being. Under the NIEHS-funded Healthy Gulf, Healthy Communities project, Kane and his colleagues collected and analyzed over 1,000 samples of Gulf seafood and found that they did not have elevated levels of contamination, post-Deepwater Horizon.

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