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HEALTH CONSULTATION


HUDSON RIVER PCBS
GLEN FALLS, WARREN COUNTY, NEW YORK


BACKGROUND AND STATEMENT OF ISSUE

Introduction

The Hudson River PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) site is a National Priority List (NPL) site including 192 miles of the Hudson River between Hudson Falls (Washington County) and the Battery in New York City. PCBs in the site have contaminated fish, and the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) has issued health advisories to suggest that anglers limit or avoid eating fish from the site and striped bass, bluefish and eels from marine waters because of PCB levels in those species.

For almost thirty years, the General Electric Company (GE) discharged PCBs into the Hudson River from two transformer and capacitor manufacturing facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York (Sofaer, 1976). These discharges probably began as early as 1947 when the Fort Edward facility began operation and were substantially ended in 1977 (Horn et al., 1979).

In late 1975, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) discovered elevated PCB levels in fish from the Hudson River. In February 1976, the NYS DEC issued regulations prohibiting all fishing in the Upper Hudson River (from Hudson Falls to the Federal dam at Troy) and prohibiting commercial harvest of most fish from Troy to New York City. Anglers were advised to eat no fish from these waters. These advisories were subsequently modified on several occasions as new data suggested that additional advisories were needed or that existing advisories could be relaxed. In 1985, the advisories were extended to striped bass caught in marine waters and commercial harvest of striped bass in marine waters was prohibited.

In 1989, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) completed a health assessment for the site (ATSDR, 1989). This assessment recognized that eating PCB-contaminated fish is the primary exposure pathway of concern to human health. In 1994, the NYS DOH completed a site review and update committing, among other things, to 1) continue community health education; 2) review and revise the consumption advisories; and 3) work with NYS DEC to distribute updated versions of the health advisories to anglers who fish in the Hudson River, New York City harbor and marine waters (NYS DOH, 1994). In 1996, NYS DOH issued a Public Health Action Plan Update which reiterated these commitments and noted that new brochures were being distributed to Hudson River anglers, particularly targeted at minority and low-income groups who are less informed about the advisories (NYS DOH, 1996). In addition, the update noted that "NYS DOH [was] investigating Hudson River angler's exposure to PCBs from [eating] fish and assessing angler awareness of the advisory."

For several years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting a reassessment of its 1984 interim decision to take no remedial action for the PCB-contaminated sediments in the Upper Hudson River (Area 1). The ecological and human health risk assessments are scheduled to be completed by August 1999. The proposed plan is currently scheduled for the end of 2000 and a Record of Decision is planned for June 2001. The most important issue, for which no scientific consensus has developed, is whether PCB levels in biota and the water will diminish now that the known sources of PCB to the river at the two General Electric facilities have been abated.

Community Health Concerns

In 1991 and 1992, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (a not-for-profit environmental education organization in Poughkeepsie, NY) used volunteer staff to interview anglers who were fishing on the Hudson River between Hudson Falls and Staten Island about their fishing habits and awareness of health advisories. The survey found that many Hudson River anglers were not aware of the consumption advisories and others who were aware did not heed the advice (Barclay, 1993). The report highlighted concerns for women of childbearing age and children under the age of 15 who appear to be at particular risk, for non-whites and for low-income anglers. The author concluded that the prohibition of fishing in the Upper Hudson River and the health advisories were "having only limited success in preventing unsafe levels of exposure to PCBs through consumption of Hudson River fish." The report included thirteen recommendations for improving angler awareness of, and adherence to, the health advisories, including both educational and research efforts.

From 1994 to 1997, NYS DEC and DOH increased efforts to inform anglers in the Hudson River valley about the health advisories. One of the efforts was focused on minority anglers who appeared to be less aware of the advisory, particularly in the river downstream of the Troy dam. In August 1995, fishing regulations were changed to permit catch-and-release fishing in the Hudson River between Hudson Falls and the Troy dam, a portion of the river where fishing had been prohibited since February 1976. With the 1995 change in regulations, signs were posted at fishing access points throughout this portion of the river informing anglers of the new regulations and PCB contamination of the fish.

This report describes the results of a resurvey of Hudson River anglers conducted in the summer and fall of 1996. Specifically, the objectives of the study were to:

  • measure awareness of the health advisories among Hudson River anglers,
  • measure angler understanding of the health advisories,
  • measure whether the advisories influenced fishing behavior or whether anglers eat fish,
  • assess what characteristics of anglers might contribute to lack of awareness or understanding of or compliance with the advisories,
  • assess whether awareness, understanding or compliance had changed among Hudson River anglers between 1991-92 and 1996,
  • estimate exposure of Hudson River anglers to PCBs from eating fish from the river.

SITE DESCRIPTION AND STUDY AREA

Excluding the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers on New York's northern border, the Hudson River is New York's largest river, with a watershed of 13,390 square miles. The Hudson River PCB site is the National Priority List (NPL) site which includes 192 miles of the Hudson River between Hudson Falls (Washington County) and the southern tip if Manhattan (Battery) in New York City. This survey only included 172 miles of the Hudson River from Hudson Falls to the Tappan Zee Bridge (Figure 1).

For this survey, the study area was divided into areas that correspond to the different health advisories:
  • Area 1 - Hudson Falls to Federal Dam at Troy
  • Area 2 - Federal Dam at Troy to Catskill
  • Area 3 - Catskill to Tappan Zee Bridge


The advisory and fishing regulations were different at the time of the two surveys (Table 1).

Physically, the river between Hudson Falls and Troy (Upper Hudson River) is quite different from the estuarine portion of the river downstream of Troy. In the Upper Hudson River (Area 1), eight dams make the river navigable to barges and other large boats. These dams create pools which are good habitat for a variety of warm water fish species. The dams have also slowed the downstream movement of PCB-contaminated sediments. Fish in the pool behind the upper-most dam (Thompson Island Dam) are the most heavily contaminated, and species which anglers catch include largemouth bass, carp and goldfish, brown bullhead, yellow perch, white sucker and several sunfish, e.g., pumpkinseed, rock bass (see Appendix A for scientific and common names of fish reported caught by anglers). Throughout the Upper Hudson River, fish communities are similar to one another, although American eels, white perch, blue-back herring and alewife are found in the river near Troy but are not a significant component of the fish communities further up-river. Immediately upstream of the Federal dam at Troy, the Mohawk River joins the Hudson, increasing water flows by 85%.


Table 1. Fishing regulations and health advisories for the Hudson River in 1991-92 and 1996.

Area of River

1991-92

1996

Area 1
   Hudson Falls to Troy
Fishing prohibited.
Eat NONE of any species.
Fishing permitted with license1, possession of fish prohibited.
Eat NONE of any species.

Area 2
   Troy to Catskill

Fishing permitted, no license1.
Eat NONE of any species except American shad.

Fishing permitted, no license1.
Eat NONE of any species.

Area 3
   Catskill to Tappan Zee

Fishing permitted, no license1.
Eat NONE of any species except American shad.
Fishing permitted, no license1.
Infrequent eating advised2.

1 North (upstream) of Troy, a state fishing license is required to fish. No license is required to fish in the tidal portion of the Hudson (south or downstream of Troy).
2 Women of childbearing age, infants and children under the age of 15 are advised to EAT NONE of any species. Other anglers are advised to eat NO MORE THAN SIX PER WEEK for blue crabs and to EAT NONE of the blue crab hepatopancreas (mustard, tomalley or liver); to eat no more than ONE MEAL PER MONTH for American eel, Atlantic needlefish, bluefish, carp, goldfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow smelt, striped bass, walleye, white catfish and white perch; For other species, anglers are advised to eat no more than ONE MEAL PER WEEK.

Figure 1: Map of Study Area

 

Downstream of the Federal dam at Troy, the Hudson is an estuary subject to daily tidal cycles. Upstream of Poughkeepsie, the river is always fresh water and downstream of the George Washington Bridge at New York City the river is essentially marine throughout the year. In the estuary (Areas 2 and 3), largemouth bass are generally replaced by smallmouth bass and the fisheries include a number of species not found to any significant extent in the Upper Hudson River, e.g. striped bass, American shad, white catfish, and blue crab. In the Haverstraw Bay region of the river, Atlantic tomcod and blue fish are also caught.


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