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NOAA Uses Human Canaries To Test Gulf Fish

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July 5, 2010

I recently checked in on the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA) for the latest update on the Deepwater Horizon oil plume.  The site features a map depicting the “fishery closure area” – a rather huge section of the Gulf of Mexico consisting of over 81,000 square miles — where fishing is prohibited.  I immediately began to wonder whether some of the toxic fish from the fishery closure area might swim outside of their boundary and find their way onto someone’s plate.  Apparently, the folks at NOAA thought of that themselves, so they developed a testing protocol to ascertain whether Gulf fish intended for human consumption might have been contaminated with petrochemicals and/or Corexit – the creepy dispersant that has been banned in Britain, although it has been used extensively in response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.  Corexit 9500, when ingested, has been known to rupture red blood cells and cause internal bleeding.  Here is the Material Safety Data Sheet for Corexit 9500, where you can find this useful tidbit:

HUMAN HAZARD CHARACTERIZATION :  Based on our hazard characterization, the potential human hazard is:  Moderate

What do you think NOAA’s Gulf fish testing protocol involves?  Gas chromatography?  Scanning electron microscopy?  Guess again.  They’re having people sniff the fish to determine whether it has been tainted.  No kidding.  Check it out:

NOAA’s expert seafood assessors are training state personnel to use their sense of smell and taste to detect any unusual odors and flavors in Gulf Coast fish — aromas that could indicate contamination by oil or dispersants from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

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Using your sense of smell is one of the best methods for determining the safety and acceptability of seafood  — sensory analysis is a commonly used tool in seafood safety and quality inspections.  An essential element of the job of a NOAA seafood inspector is to determine what qualifies as Grade A fish, which means that seafood must have good flavor and odor.

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People are trained by exposing them to various kinds and concentrations of odors and flavors.  This process takes time.  Some people, unfortunately, are not trainable — some just don’t have an adequate sense of smell to do this work.  However, most people have a sense that can be trained to detect specific odors and refined for enhanced sensitivity.

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The Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill is on a scale we’ve never seen before, and we can use all the extra hands — and nostrils — we can get.  We are expecting to process tens of thousands of samples in the coming months.

What are sensory testers “sniffing” for?

Sensory testers smell for the distinct scent of oil or chemicals that might differ from the normal odor of fish and shellfish ready for market.  When we get a whiff of oil in a seafood sample, we know that the product is unfit for both human consumption and for commercial sale.

In “harmonization” class, we spike fish samples with set concentrations  of oil specific to the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, as well as dispersants, to determine how sensitive our testers and trainees are.

Learning to discern an odor or flavor and properly describing it is something that comes from experience.  Some odors or flavors are easily masked by a competing odor or flavor so the training and evaluations need to take place in a controlled setting such as a laboratory.  We train people to not only fine-tune their sense of smell to the oil and dispersants from this particular spill, but also to be able to repeat their sensory abilities and standardize how they describe what they are smelling.

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For fish like snapper and grouper, we collect a minimum of six, one-pound samples.  First, the fish are filleted.  Then, a panel of 10 expert assessors will smell each of the raw samples and record the odor.  The samples are then cooked, and the process is repeated so that the experts may smell and taste the fish in its cooked state.

Cooking the product is important for two reasons:  First, it releases aromas that may be less detectable in a raw state.  Second, some of the testers may be more sensitive to the smell of cooked fish versus raw fish.  Either way, smelling both raw and cooked samples assures that our testers can detect the full aromatic possibilities of the fish.

This “sniff testing” struck me as a really stupid idea.  It doesn’t sound reliable at all.  It is based on the presumption that hazardous levels of numerous chemicals — often in combination —  can be detected by the human olfactory sense.  Has NOAA considered that these fish sniffers might be getting exposed to hazardous chemicals at levels in excess of the Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for these substances?   How many parts per million of the various petrochemicals are the testers ingesting when they sniff this fish on a continuous basis?  Worse yet:  How much do they ingest when they eat the fish?   I would love to hear the opinion from an independent, objective panel of occupational hygienists about this testing protocol.

NOAA’s fish-sniffing project appears to be just another example of how a stupid mistake  (allowing the  Deepwater Horizon to operate in the first place) sets off a chain reaction of even more stupid mistakes.  Let’s hope the people involved with this testing don’t suffer any unhealthful consequences from this activity.  Aside from the risk of adverse physical effects, there is also a good chance that these people signed a release —  exculpating “the usual suspects” from any and all liability arising from injuries sustained while conducting these tests.  No good deed shall go unpunished.



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