Squirrel has never really caught on as a popular diet staple, and now New Jersey officials are adding another, quite serious reason to shy away from eating the woodland creatures: lead contamination.
New Jersey officials are warning hunters and residents near a toxic-waste dump in the Ringwood area not to eat the animals. Their warning comes two months after a lead-contaminated squirrel was found in the area.
It is the first time the state has ever issued an advisory regarding eating squirrels, said Tom Slater, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Senior Services.
A letter sent Tuesday to Ringwood residents advised them that children should not eat squirrel more than once a month; pregnant women should limit their intake to twice a month, and adults should not eat squirrel more than twice a week.
Lead, which is harmful even in small amounts, can damage the nervous system, red-blood-cell production and the kidneys.
Ringwood is home to the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, many of whom have hunted, fished and grown their own food in the area for years.
One of the tribe's members, Vivian Milligan, 55, said that while squirrel isn't as popular now, there was sometimes little else while she was growing up. "It was the food that was put on the table. It was available, and that's what you had to eat," she said.
The real concern, said Milligan, is whether other animals, such as deer - which many people she knows do rely on for food - or plants have been contaminated.
According to Mary Mears, a spokeswoman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Region 2 office, deer from the area were collected and tested in early January, and the results should be known by the end of the month.
Residents and many environmental activists believe the lead comes from toxic waste, including paint sludge, dumped in the area by the Ford Motor Co. during the 1960s and early 1970s, from its now-closed car-manufacturing plant in Mahwah.
Ford has removed 20,000 tons of waste from a 500-acre former mining property in the Ringwood area during the last two years, said Jon Holt, a spokesman for the company.
The site last year was put back on the federal Superfund list, a ranking of the country's worst environmental dump sites. The relisting came after multiple cleanups, which Holt said removed 12,000 tons of waste, failed to clean out all of the sludge.
A group of Ringwood residents are suing Ford over the dump, which they blame for numerous health problems including certain cancers and skin diseases.
Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, said tests were done only after heavy lobbying by local residents and should have been performed on plants and animals in the Ringwood area a long time ago.
"It's ridiculous that they're coming up with a squirrel advisory. . . . It should be an advisory against a consumption of any wildlife," Spiegel said. "The whole food chain up here is contaminated."
Mears, from the EPA, said plant and animal testing is not automatically included in the work that the agency does on every Superfund site. "We did this testing because the community requested we do the testing."