If people living on the Gulf Coast trusted the federal government all that much, they might be in trouble right now.  

In the first peer-reviewed challenge to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) safe levels for cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a new study says they were overestimated in Gulf seafood following the BP oil spill by up to 10,000 times.

Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, the study by authors Miriam Rotkin-Ellman and Gina Solomon — both from the National Resources Defense Council — offers evidence that FDA is tolerating too much contamination  and is failing to identify risks for pregnant women and children.

Issues raised in the article — entitled “Seafood Contamination After the BP Gulf Oil Spill and Risks to Vulnerable Populations: A Critique of the FDA Risk Assessment” — are not new.

FDA’s risk assessment is based on estimates it made about how much seafood a typical Gulf resident would consume over the next five years.  Everyone is presumed to weigh 176 pounds and oil contamination is assumed to disappear after five years.

The new study says the FDA risk assessment seriously underestimated the cancer risk from contamination that can accumulate in seafood.  Based on the findings, the National Resources Defense Council has petitioned FDA, asking the agency to set a new standard for PAHs in seafood.

“Our findings add a long list of evidence that FDA is overlooking the risks from chemical contaminants in food,” says Rotkin-Ellman.  “We must not wait for people to get sick or cancer rates to rise, we need FDA to act now to protect the food supply.”

The study says FDA should update its risk assessment methods “to better reflect current risk assessment practices.”

What difference has the FDA’s more liberal risk assessment made?  The authors also looked at available PAH testing data for shellfish after the spill.  Ellman, writing on her blog, says up to 53 percent of the shrimp tested had PAH levels “exceeding our revised levels of concern for pregnant women who eat a lot of Gulf shellfish.”

“Instead of saying it was safe for everyone to eat, pregnant women and children should have been warned and advised to reduce their Gulf shellfish consumption,” Ellman says.

Survey research in the aftermath of the BP oil spill has showed Gulf residents being suspicious of the many proclamations about seafood being safe made by federal officials from the President on down.

Behind the scenes, information released by the National Resource Defense Council shows Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists and even some FDA personnel were calling for stronger protection against contamination.