Fraser River sockeye could be getting sick or even dying because of a daily cocktail of household chemicals entering the watershed, a judicial inquiry has heard.

Aquatic toxicology expert Peter Ross testified Tuesday that many of the 23,000 everyday chemicals listed on the federal government's domestic-substances list may not immediately kill fish but could predispose them to future health problems.

"They might reduce their growth, confuse them, affect their ability to smell, to find their home stream, reduce their immune system, make them vulnerable to disease, outbreaks of disease, or affect their energetics, in other words, their ability to feed and grow," Ross said.

He said the true impact of contaminants may become apparent only when salmon get viruses, encounter food-supply shortages, experience climate change or if their habitat is destroyed.

As a result, researchers should be studying how contaminants are affecting salmon in the "real world," Ross said.

But he noted that's currently not happening.

Research funding cut

In fact, he said, the federal government cut a $5.4-million research program, known as the Toxic Chemicals Research Program, in 2005.

He said the program delivered about $1.2 million in funding to the Pacific region, and the cuts have had an impact on his research.

"With little question, the loss of this program has meant that my job as a scientist has become more difficult," said Ross.

The inquiry is examining the decline of the sockeye salmon population in the Fraser River.

It has heard that restructuring of the Fisheries Department between 2004 and 2006 hampered fish habitat protection when some duties were shifted to Environment Canada.

Communication decreasing

The commission also heard Tuesday that there may be little direct communication between Environment Canada and Fisheries Department researchers, especially when it comes to environmental contaminants.

Graham van Aggelen, who heads the environmental toxicology lab at Environment Canada, said he has not talked to colleagues at DFO while acting as a lab manager.

He said communication was much better in the early 1990s, but that has changed and now there's little to no contact.

Ross also said communication may be difficult because so many different government departments can be involved in issues ranging from human health to wildlife health, mines to mills.

"It's safe for me to be able to say that I have struggled upon occasion with understanding first of all, who is responsible for what, and second of all, what I as a scientist am expected to carry out in support of the mission of my primary employer, or my sole employer, which is Fisheries and Oceans Canada," said Ross.