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Mercury warnings for donated fish

At least two Idaho food banks and a Washington state homeless shelter appear to have gotten donated fish pulled from an Idaho lake without being aware of a state warning about high mercury levels in such fish.

Representatives of the Post Falls Food Bank in Idaho and the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane, Wash., told The Associated Press on Wednesday they didn't know of the warning. A day earlier, the Bonner Community Food Bank in Sandpoint, Idaho, said it also was unaware.

Idaho officials now say they should have better publicized a 2007 Department of Health and Welfare advisory that pregnant women and children should eat no more than a single monthly meal of lake trout and four meals of whitefish taken from Lake Pend Oreille.

The Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group, raised the issue of the donated fish Tuesday, arguing low-income residents and those helping feed them hadn't been told of the potential risks of mercury, which at high levels can damage the human nervous system, particularly in developing fetuses.

The Bonner Community Food Bank distributed 4,700 pounds of lake trout and whitefish gillnetted from the lake in 2008. The Gospel Mission put on a fish bake for male residents in November with some of its roughly 800 pounds of fish.

Cathy Larson, Post Falls Food Bank manager, said workers handed out as much as six pounds of fish in food baskets to families and others last August and September.

Jerry Lyon, president of the food bank board, said officials should have told his charity, so it could at least have made recipients aware of the mercury advisory.

"If there was any concern on the part of any entity that was providing food to the food bank, I would think they would have the responsibility to let us know," Lyon said.

Steve Viers, a kitchen manager at Spokane's Union Gospel Mission, told the AP he wasn't aware of the mercury advisory until he saw a news story Wednesday. He was uncertain if other shelter officials knew of it; they didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

On Wednesday, Idaho Fish and Game officials said they've also given Pend Oreille fish to the Kootenai Tribe in Bonner's Ferry, the Shoshone County Food Bank in Kellogg, the Lake City Community Church in Coeur d'Alene and possibly the Kalispel Tribe in northeastern Washington. The agency started the giveaways several years ago after being criticized for wasting fish.

"What we've learned from this is, we probably need to step up our education process with any donations that are made," said Tom Shanahan, a spokesman for Health and Welfare. "What we don't want to see is those donations stop, because we think this is a very good program."