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Tales: Selenium Scare

By Al Kalin
Imperial Valley Press, August 02, 2001

I am asked at least once a week, "Is it safe to eat corvina?"

Last week my friend Keith and his buddy Erik caught a mess of corvina and decided to have an office fish fry. Much to their chagrin, the office staff, many of whom were scientists, shunned the fish because they thought high selenium levels made it unsafe to eat.

When Keith told me about his failed fish fry, I too was miffed. This whole selenium scare has been out of hand for years and needs to be rectified. That a selenium advisory still remains in effect is ludicrous.

Selenium is a trace element that exists in our soil and is needed for our bodies to function properly. Recent studies have shown mortality from some types of cancer is lower with those patients having a higher level of selenium in their bodies. Selenium is one of a group of antioxidants that may help limit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and thereby help prevent coronary artery disease.

Another survey shows patients with rheumatoid arthritis have low levels of selenium in their blood. Selenium supplements may help ward off the disease. More work is being done to find other benefits of selenium.

The original selenium advisory was issued shortly after birds were discovered with birth defects at the Kesterson Refuge in the 1980s. High levels of selenium in the soil and water at Kesterson were thought to be the cause. Fearing the worse and under a great deal of political pressure, the federal government tested water, fish and fowl in other refuges nearby. The fish in the Salton Sea showed elevated levels of selenium but certainly nowhere near as high as those found at Kesterson.

The Imperial County Health Department soon issued an advisory that stated: Because of elevated selenium levels, no one should eat more than 4 ounces of croaker, orangemouth corvina, sargo and tilapia taken from the Salton Sea in any two-week period. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and children age 15 and under should not eat fish from this area.

I talked with Mark Johnston at the county Health Department a few months ago and asked him about the advisory. Mark told me the advisory had been issued before his time and he knew little about it. He said he wasn‚t sure what state agency had tested the selenium levels in Salton Sea fish. Mark had heard the collecting technique used was wrong and the sampling process was too small and not representative of the population.

In addition, he had heard the testing was done with unreliable equipment using unproven methods. Mark told me although it was possible there was nothing wrong with eating fish from the Salton Sea, there had been no new studies done since the 1980s, so to be on the safe side, the Health Department wanted to keep the advisory in effect until new studies could be conducted.

Next I called Steve Horvitz, superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Steve is the "answer man" when it comes to the Salton Sea.

Steve, who enjoys eating corvina as often as he can, mirrored what Johnston at the Health Department had said but added to what I had already discovered.

Steve told me recent testing and new information suggest the levels of selenium in corvina may be 15 times below any human levels established by the federal government. According to Steve, selenium buildup in our bodies from consuming corvina numerous times a month may not be any higher than from eating any one of many things, including a chef's salad, two slices of bread, a tuna sandwich, taking two multiple vitamins, or washing our hair with Selsun Blue. That's right boys and girls, selenium, at high levels, is the active ingredient used to fight dandruff.

"In many places in Europe," Horvitz said, "diets are lacking in selenium so fish are grown in ponds containing massive amounts of selenium. The people who eat the fish with extremely high selenium levels have shown no adverse side effects after years of consumption."

In addition, Steve told me that in the lower reaches of the Colorado River, fish tested have contained four times the amount of selenium in their flesh as fish in the Salton Sea.

So if all this information is so readily available, why hasn't the state or local governments lifted the selenium advisory on the amount of Salton Sea fish you can eat?

The answer is obvious. The state and county are the ones who issued the advisory in the first place. They‚re the ones who originally issued the advisory. It would be a political hot potato to come clean, 20 years later, and tell the world their inept methods and poor science under political pressure caused the downfall of one of the most successful fisheries in the world and caused millions of dollars in lost income.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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