Environment Group Slams Ottawa
by Amy Carmichael
VANCOUVER -- An environmental group is accusing Health Canada of changing the rules to allow salmon farms to use a controversial drug to fight sea lice.
The Raincoast Conservation Society said it has obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act showing that Health Canada has allowed fish farms to treat 170 million salmon with a drug called Slice since 1999.
Fish containing the drug residue had been banned from human consumption, but the agency recently hiked the allowable limit to 50 parts per billion from zero.
The aquaculture industry has been using it to fight off sea lice that can crop up around fish farms, including sites off Vancouver Island and the Broughton Archipelago.
"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wrote to Health Canada and said it was consistently finding Slice residue in farmed salmon and that it was prepared to halt shipment of the product," Raincoast said.
"Health Canada decided to change the regulations to allow a level of 50 parts per billion."
The majority of Canadian farmed salmon is exported to the United States, which doesn't test for Slice.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said the use of Slice is closely monitored by the government.
"Our vets have to apply to use it on groups of fish," said spokeswomen Mary Ellen Walling. "It's very highly controlled and we take our direction from the vet."
In 1999, the government received an urgent request from fish farm veterinarians to approve the drug "due to a major problem with sea lice," said Jirina Vlk, a spokeswoman for Health Canada.
"It's less toxic than other treatments available," she explained.
It hasn't been approved for use in Canada or the U.S. Both countries have given permission to use it, but only through an emergency release, which requires an application.
"The emergency drug release program has strict requirements observed for the use of all drugs that are released," Health Canada said in a statement.
"This includes specifying withdrawal times that must be observed in treated food-producing animals to ensure safety for human consumption."
The agency said it continues to be cautious in authorizing emergency drug releases.
Not much is known about the human health effects of the drug.
Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University of Albany, has examined Slice and is an expert on chemicals in food.
He said that in studies on animals, Slice has been shown to cause the brain to grow in an abnormal shape and causes lesions on the brain.
"It's certainly not good for you, but we don't really have enough information to know how toxic it is to people," he said from New York.
Carpenter doesn't want to overstate the risk for the general population, but said women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid it.
"It's just another example of chemicals in our food that we don't know much about. Our regulatory agencies need to investigate better and harmonize their advisories on these agents," he said.
The active ingredient in Slice is emamectin benzonate, a known neurotoxin listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as highly toxic.
Documents show over 35 million Canadian farmed salmon were treated with the sea lice drug in 2003 alone.
Raincoast wants the government to study the effects of Slice not only on people, but the marine environment. Residue has been found in wild oysters near fish farms and the group wonders if it is affecting shrimp and other species.
"The widespread use of Slice in Canada points to the extent that sea lice is a problem for the industry. Sea lice is also a real threat to wild populations," said Theresa Rothenbush, an aquaculture specialist with Raincoast.
Sea lice from salmon farms were implicated in the disappearance of three million wild pink salmon in B.C. in 2003, she said.
Walling said her industry has spent millions of dollars studying sea lice and has found no causal effect between fish farms, the parasite and the decreased returns of pink salmon.
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