Catching And Eating Fish From Cuyahoga River Impacts Health Of Refugee Populations

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A group of Karen refugees are on their way to fish in the Cuyahoga River near Akron. It’s a pastime they brought with them from their home country, Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The Cuyahoga River has a gotten a lot cleaner since it caught fire in 1969 — so much so that last year the U.S. EPA eased fish consumption guidelines. But despite the improvements, the fish still have contaminants like mercury and PCBs, and the Ohio Department of Health advises most species only be eaten once a month.

Some immigrant and refugee communities in Northeast Ohio, like Karen, use the river as a staple food source, eating much more than health guidelines recommend. The contaminants could adversly impact the health of such immigrant populations, who often eat many meals using the whole fish.

In the summers, some Karen fish as often as once a week and many aren’t aware of the river’s pollution issues.

"I don’t really know anything about the regulations," Gel Ro, a Karen refugee who fishes frequently near Akron, said. "When we fish, we all go out together and we eat all the fish we catch."

Catching and cooking fish from the river is a part of the Karen culture. At her home in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, Ro mixes garlic and onion with Thai chili paste, which she’ll cook with whole small fish — head and all — for lunch.

The Ohio EPA tests fish flesh for chemicals, most commonly for mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Those are more likely to be found in the fish skin and fat tissue, says Bob Hasenyager at Summit County Public Health.

"In Ohio in general, all water bodies have an advisory for eating fish," Hasenyager said. "Because we’ve relied so many years on coal-fired power plants, and the coal-fired power plants emit mercury. That mercury comes down with the rain, so even with the more wild places in Ohio, the fish might be contaminated."

One of the concerns for the refugee populations is that they may be introducing too much mercury and PCBs into their bodies, which can have harmful health effects on the brain and nervous system.

"Both of those chemicals are bio-accumulative, once they come into your body, they don’t leave your body as quickly," Hasenyager said. "They can build up in your fat tissue, just as they can build up in the fat tissue of fish."

The Ohio EPA is expanding testing to more fish this year because of the cultural practices of different immigrant groups.

Public health officials and refugee community groups are also working together to set up outreach and workshops that teach anglers how to differentiate between fish they should and shouldn’t eat.

On a Sunday morning at Stearns Homestead in Parma, Dr. Robert Brand of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health leads a workshop for Bhutanese refugees about pollution, fish contamination and the health standards. He says a big part of outreach is getting the communities to understand that the land and rivers in the U.S. are polluted from industry, compared to the often much cleaner lands in Bhutan or Nepal where they come from.

Brand also notes that the type of fish you eat dictates what chemicals you may be exposed to, and cautions against eating carp.

"The issue with lead and mercury, because they’re heavy metals, they accumulate in the nervous system," Brand said. "And they decrease the function particularly of brain tissue and nerve tissue. So the reason carp are not recommended to eat is because they’re top predators, so they eat all the other fish and the contaminants build up in carp particularly."

They’re also learning how to clean and cook a fish properly to avoid ingesting contaminants.

While there’s more work to do to reduce pollutants, health officials still urge people to eat the right kind of fish at the right amounts for important health benefits, like omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

"I think we are seeing improvements over time, and that’s the good news, is that we can improve our environment, and help our environment to heal," Hasenyager said.

For Gel Ro and her friends, fishing still remains a chance to bring everyone together and to celebrate their culture and community.

"My favorite thing about fishing is being able to go outside and sit by the river and feel refreshed," Ro said. "It’s our chance to hang out with our friends, and get fresh air. That’s what I like most about fishing."

And having something fresh for dinner from the Cuyahoga is a plus, too.

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