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The legendary Mississippi River immortalized by Mark Twain has become so tainted by sewage that long stretches should be barred to swimmers and some of its fish declared inedible, a conservation group said Friday.

"Large portions of the Big River . . . are unsafe for whole-body-contact recreation," the group, American Rivers, said in a report based on recent data from two government agencies.It said most species of fish in the river should only be eaten occasionally, some should not be eaten once they reached a certain size and a few "should not be eaten at all."

The description of the river stood in stark contrast to the waterway of Twain's era a century ago. It was Twain who wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the tale of a boy who lived and fished on the river as he drifted down it on a raft with an escaped slave.

The group's Mississippi River expert, Scott Faber, said data on levels of fecal coliform, which indicate the presence of large amounts of human and animal waste in the river, were "relatively surprising."

The waste levels broke federal standards near the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, as well as St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, the report said.

The bacteria can cause intestinal problems, and for people with weak-ened immune systems can sometimes be fatal.

The report said fish absorbed toxic chemicals, such as lead, mercury and PCBs, which used to be widely used, from industrial waste and farm run-off in the river. Consuming those fish in large quantities over a long time could lead to cancer, nervous system damage and developmental problems in babies.

Mississippi River fish which the group said should not be eaten included white bass in Minnesota, carp and carpsucker near the Quad Cities, sturgeon in Missouri, and any species caught between the Mississippi state line and the Loosahatchee River in Tennessee.

American Rivers issued the report because advisories in the 10 Mississippi River states were inconsistent, and were non-existent in Arkansas and Mississippi.