TCS Daily

Expensive Fish Fears

By Sandy Szwarc - February 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Declaring it "another victory for public health," an environmental group announced yet another national restaurant chain had discontinued offering swordfish to all of their customers "as a result of a national campaign calling for its removal due to high levels of mercury." Under Proposition 65, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued chain restaurants offering seafood dishes. Restaurants must now post mercury warnings that say "carcinogens or reproductive toxins may be present in food or beverages sold in the restaurant." Of course, that can be said of virtually every food or beverage consumed, but that's beside the point. A portion of the heavy settlement costs are to be used to fund programs to "educate" consumers about the dangers of "mercury in fish."

Restaurateurs and the food industry have become pawns in a political fight that has nothing to do with the safety of fish or health dangers of methylmercury. But by ignoring the sound science and capitulating to political pressures, food professionals actually confirm and accentuate public fears about methylmercuy in fish. And the final victims are consumers.

We hear that some fish contain high levels of mercury and that expectant women could endanger their unborn babies and mothers could harm their children's developing nervous systems unless fish consumption is limited. But the only cases in the scientific literature of mercury poisoning from fish and subsequent neurological problems were the result of an industrial mercury spill in Japan in the 1950s, which resulted in fish with methylmercury levels 40 to 1,000 times higher than the fish Americans eat.

Women have been eating fish and delivering healthy babies for ages, and methylmercury has always been in fish naturally and in our bodies. Still, no one wanted to take any chances with the health of babies and children, so two of the most comprehensive, state-of-the-art methylmercury studies ever conducted in the world set out to make sure that the low-levels of methylmercury in fish Americans eat are safe. After nearly fifteen years, the researchers were unable to find evidence that the amounts of methylmercury in fish eaten by American pregnant women and children put them or the women's newborn infants at risk. Even among populations eating ten or more times that of Americans, scientists have found no credible evidence of neurotoxicity, let alone anything remotely resembling brain damage, developmental delays, retardation or learning disabilities.

While the evidence should provide reassurance, that's not what Americans are hearing. Instead, women are being frightened into believing that real risk is found by crossing numbers of methylmercury exposure that are actually just arbitrary safety cushions that have been set by the EPA far below where any danger is expected.

The EPA's safety cushion is the most restrictive in the world and most other scientific agencies here and around the world examining the same evidence have established minimum exposure levels multiple times higher. To arrive at their levels, the EPA took a level where there was no observed effect at all in the most sensitive of the population with a lifetime of exposure --- a methylmercury level nearly ten times that found in American women --- and added another ten-fold safety cushion to that.

When the CDC studied the mercury levels in American women of childbearing age and young children, it found not a single woman or child had values over or anywhere near the levels theorized as unsafe. The USDA's Human Nutrition Information Services also analyzed the diets of American women of childbearing years using several surveys. They then factored in all sorts of possibilities: such as heavy fish consumption, eating fish with the highest methylmercury levels, repeatedly eating the same fish such as canned tuna, and the amounts of methylmercury in a range of commercial fish samples. Try as they might, with 100,000 iterations, they found it was inconceivable for a mother to eat so much purchased fish she'd put her baby anywhere near harm's way. According to Dr. James Heimbach, former associate administrator with the HNIS, American women "simply are not exposed to levels of methylmercury that would place the newborn children at risk."

Sadly, fears about mercury are deterring adults from eating fish and missing potentially life-saving health benefits. Both the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association have been recommending consumers increase their fish consumption, finding significant correlations with reduced risks for heart disease, sudden cardiac deaths, strokes and premature deaths. Continued research is also suggesting benefits for the immune system, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lupus, kidney disease, cancer and depression.

Pregnant women have been most frightened by mercury fears and rather than just taking precautions to avoid the few varieties that could contain the highest mercury levels, they're inhibited from eating all fish. This is despite the long-standing advice of healthcare professionals, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to eat two to three servings of a variety of fish each week to ensure healthy babies. Many consumers don't realize that research indicates fish may improve pregnancy outcomes and fetal growth, reduce the risk of preeclampsia and premature labor, and help avert postpartum depression. And many fish are also sources for the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosohexaenoic acid), that's critical for vision, behavioral and cognitive development in babies and young children. The risks for young women and children by not eating fish could be heartbreaking.

So, if it's not health, what's all of this hubub over mercury in fish really about? As a Congressional review of the evidence on mercury emissions and health just released by the House Resources Committee, found, it is all about politics. Based on all available science, their report "Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury," also found no basis for claims that unborn children may be at risk if their mothers eat fish during pregnancy. It concludes: "The politicization of the mercury emissions rulemaking process and the ensuing campaign launched by environmental organizations have misinformed and frightened Americans about the impacts of mercury emissions from power plants." You see, health fears are merely being raised in the battle over various emissions regulations currently being debated. The regulations -- either the environmentalists' proposals or Administration's Clear Skies Initiative -- will be some of the costliest regulations ever enacted in our country's history.

But just how much will these emissions regulations reduce the methylmercury levels in the fish we eat? Certainly much less than consumers are being led believe. Conservative estimates suggest that either emission plan would reduce average methylmercury levels in seafood a mere 0.0001 to 0.0017 parts per million. That's all folks.

The bottom line is that when the government, litigators and special interest groups get together to enact more regulations, we all have vested interests in ensuring decisions are based on sound science and compassion, not politics and fears. To do anything else, and the costs for all of us are simply too great.


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