Community residents are still reeling from the news that the groundwater underneath their homes has been contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals for decades. But it isn’t just the contamination from one spill that threatens the health of Wichitans, Kansans and Americans.

Over the years, an assortment of chemicals  have contaminated the country’s waterways including the K-96 lake, the Arkansas River, Cow Creek, the Kansas River, all sites where people fish to catch dinner.

Contaminants that are now known to cause serious health issues were routinely used to control insects and other pests or as high stress lubricants. At the top of the list are DDT, Chlordane, and polychlorinated biphenyls  (PCBs).  All those were once considered safe chemicals that only after years of use were determined to be dangerous.

“We are an agency that has been in existence for 50 years trying to clean up all the pollution that has happened over 200 years,” Kansas Department of Health and Environment scientist Mary Daily told community members during a recent hearing on the 29th and Grove spill site. “The amount of dangerous chemicals that were spilled over time means we have a huge number of sites that have soil and groundwater pollution.

The Danger of Mercury

A significant pollutant of waterways – and even the ocean –  is mercury, which is a byproduct of burning coal.  For years, Mercury was released into the atmosphere by plants producing electricity and returned to lakes, rivers and streams during heavy rainfall events. Almost all fish, whether you catch it yourself or buy it at the grocery store, has some degree of mercury contamination.

Mercury is especially dangerous for pregnant women, nursing babies and growing children.

A contaminant that has largely been contained is sulfur, which brought the famous “acid rain” and massive fish kills in the Great Lakes in the 1970s. 

The warnings about that contamination comes in advisories about eating the fish you can catch in the K-96 lake, the Arkansas River, Cow Creek, the Kansas River, all sites where people fish to catch dinner.

What how much you eat

 Because the warnings about contamination have been around for decades, many people have sort of written them off as “a long time ago” problems and don’t realize they are still very, very real.

Warnings exist for consumption of fish caught in the Little Arkansas River or in the K-96 Lake that advise people to limit the amount of fish they eat, especially the bottom feeders. The advice is to eat one or two servings a week of blue or channel catfish, common carp, carppies, white bass, white perch, wiper, striped bass, walleye, sauger, saugeye, bullhead catfish, drum or sunfish.

Limit your servings of buffalo, flathead catfish or bass, whether largemouth, smallmouth or spotted, to one or two servings a month.

Don’t eat at all

KDHE advises that you NEVER eat bottom feeding fish any other aquatic life that is caught from the Arkansas River from the Lincoln Street dam downstream to the confluence with Cowskin Creek near Belle Plaine because of contamination with PCBs.

Keep little ones

The general wisdom of fishing is to throw back the small ones and keep the big ones. When it comes to contamination, it’s exactly the opposite. Smaller fish have had less time to accumulate toxins, so you are better off to eat the smaller ones and throw back the bigger, more contaminated ones. 

It’s also a good idea to filet the fish and not eat other parts. Trim the fat and use cooking methods that drain the fat off since contamination accumulates in the fat.