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Mercury & fish: Why does the debate go on?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Special to Enviroblog by Sonya Lunder, EWG Senior Analyst.

The topic of mercury and fish is once again in the news. This time it was prompted by public comments submitted to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) about its controversial (hurry-up-and-get-it-out-before-George-leaves) mercury report, which largely concludes that the toxic effects of mercury in fish are mostly overcome by the beneficial fats in fish. Here at EWG an eyebrow or two (OK, more than that) were raised when these "findings" were released.

The problem with FDA's guidance? Bad science FDA's new guidance is based on a fatally flawed model leaked last fall that was blasted by mercury experts at the Environmental Protection Agency - who cautioned against releasing it, citing scientific flaws and inadequacies.

The current draft, released minutes before the Inauguration, has slightly less outrageous language, but the basic findings remain the same. Recent public comments submitted by EWG, scientists and advocates identified the huge deficiencies in the modeling, which (not surprisingly) cast FDA's conclusions in serious doubt.

FDA presents the hazards of mercury and benefits of fish as a "he said, she said" type of argument, which could lead a rational adult to conclude that there is a legitimate scientific conflict about the issue. Which of course, there's not.

While it is true that the beneficial Omega-3 fats and other nutrients in fish appear to ameliorate or off-set some of the adverse impacts of mercury to the brains of the developing fetus and child, and does actually reduces risks to patients with heart disease. But. The conversation is skewed by the longstanding efforts of the fishing industry to downplay mercury risks.

Industry says... mercury ain't so bad FDA scientists are not the first to fall for the industry's line on mercury. But as a government agency advising pregnant women and people with heart disease, they are taking dangerous risks with our health.

Comments supporting FDA's flawed work largely came from those with clear industry ties, like the National Fisheries Institute, StarKist, Seafood Producer's Association, Center for Consumer Freedom, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Shelf-Stable Food Producers Association. But you need a bit of a history to distinguish some other characters.

One bizarrely strong fish supporter One commenter, Ashley Roman, presented herself as "a mother and physician." She neglected to mention she was an 'expert-for-hire' for the fisheries-industry sponsored Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition, which has concluded that pregnant women were not eating enough fish. No, really.

Dr. Roman's opinion on mercury is less restrictive than even FDA's (a bit shocking). She told the Washington Post in 2007 that she recommended her pregnant patients eat at least 3 servings of fish a week - a clear violation of the FDA and EPA's guidance for pregnant women. Dr. Roman added that "fish intake in pregnancy has never been linked with mercury toxicity" in fetuses or newborns. Huh?

The truth about mercury toxicity: it's not good for pregnant women Assertions like these, echoed in FDA's draft report, are completely untrue. Mercury toxicity is known to overwhelm the benefits of fish fats in several international studies. And Dr. Roman need look no further than Massachusetts or Manhattan for evidence that exposure to even low levels of mercury during pregnancy has a negative effect on infant development.

The FDA should take a long, hard look at mercury As it stands, the 2009 FDA draft is a relic of a previous Administration in which scientific findings could be stretched to defend nearly any policy decision.

We urge the new FDA to take a fresh look at the risks and benefits of mercury and seafood. There are likely some fish - with low mercury levels and lots of good fats - that can be eaten in large quantities with little risk. There are also some bad fish, like shark, tilefish, swordfish, mackrel, and others that are unsafe for at-risk groups. Consumers are hungry for clear guidance, and it just takes the right group of committed scientists to provide it. We're waiting.

In the meantime, check out our safe fish list for women.

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