Pitt on the lookout for ‘girlie-man’ river fish

By Deborah Weisberg Contributing Writer

Pittsburgh — Anglers on western Pennsylvania rivers are fishing
for science.

The Highland Park Dam – one of the Allegheny River’s hottest
spots – has become a field lab of sorts for a University of
Pittsburgh public health expert who hopes to show that hundreds of
chemicals and heavy metals are still plaguing the urban

“Fish are like canaries in the coal mine,” said Dan Volz,
scientific director of the Center for Healthy Environments and
Communities at Pitt’s graduate school of public health, who is
testing white bass and channel catfish donated by local

The metals are from Pittsburgh’s industrial past, while the
chemicals are estrogen-like compounds that come from new home
construction and anti-microbrial agents used on farms within the
Ohio drainage encompassing the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio
rivers, he said.

Some chemicals, such as phalates, which are found in
construction glue and paint, mimic the effect of estrogen, a
hormone produced by the body and needed for the development of
female sex organs, he said. An excess can have the effect of birth
control pills and could potentially cause breast cancer, Volz

In rivers, they could be spawning a generation of “girlie-men
fish,” Volz said. “Studies on the Potomac show a lot of fish are
developing female characteristics, like undeveloped eggs in the

He is interested in knowing how much of a health risk fish pose
for the people who eat them, and said fish are probably the best
indicators of water quality, which is of concern to the general

Volz is focusing on white bass and channel catfish – species in
the middle of the food chain – because he needs 100 fish for the
study and figured they’d be easier to come by in big numbers than
walleyes and smallmouth bass.

”Anything that will help is fine with me,” said Howard Harvard,
who has fished the Highland Park Dam for decades. “The sewage that
comes out of that pipe is unbelievable,” he said, nodding toward an
outflow from Guyasuta Run, which carries wastewater from suburban
Fox Chapel to the river near the dam. “You got to wonder what runs
in here.”

Besides phalates, Volz is testing for PCBs, a carcinogen once
used in electrical systems, pesticides such as DDT, and
anti-microbial agents, many containing arsenic, that wash into the
water when it rains. There are consumption advisories in effect on
fisheries statewide for mercury, PCBs and chlordane, but Volz said
there are hundreds of more chemicals of concern.

Volz also will be sampling fish for metals left behind by steel
mills and coke plants. “We had mills up and down the Mon dispersing
metal dusts that were contaminants… coke ovens that produced large
volumes of benzene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons,” said

“There’s hexavalent chromium, an element found in rolling and
plating mills, that is known to cause cancer. And lead, aluminum,
vanadium, molybdenum, iron, copper, and zinc. Even if most of the
mills are gone, they’re still giving off metals through
contaminated soil and groundwater, which moves back and forth with
the river, and through sludge at the bottom of the river. The
riverbed is like a sink. Metals collect there.”

Heavy metals may intensify the effect of pseudo-estrogen
compounds in fish, said Volz, because of the synergistic effect
that can occur when they interact.

Anglers have already donated more than two-thirds of the fish
Volz needs. He is documenting where they were caught, filleting
them and then freezing the meat, which eventually will be
pulverized in a high-tech blender and tested for toxins. He is
archiving the fishes’ hearts, livers, kidneys, and sex organs.
“We’re public health folks, so we’re not concerned with the health
of the fish,” he said. “We’re interested in the health of the

”You get a little nervous when you hear the warnings on mercury,
iron, and PCBs,” said Harvard, who once worked in a steel mill. “I
don’t know how harmful they are, but I eat just the gamefish – the
walleyes and the crappies.”

Volz said all species can harbor chemicals, and not just bottom
dwellers. He will spend much of this winter interviewing urban
anglers about their fish-consumption habits. “There’s a whole
subset of people who live on river-caught fish. We want to know
what they eat and how they clean and cook their fish.”

“It’s got to be terrible down there,” said angler Paul Caruso,
of Homer City, as he reeled up a 24-inch channel cat for Volz’s
study. “But as long as they bite, I don’t care.”

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