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Mercury Mischief at FDA

For Immediate Release: 
Friday, December 12, 2008

WASHINGTON –- Documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are pressing to reverse the agency’s current recommendations that pregnant women and children limit their seafood consumption due to risks of exposure to mercury – an extremely harmful neurotoxin found at high levels in a number of popular seafood species such as tuna, swordfish and mackerel.

An internal FDA report, stamped “CLOSE HOLD,” claims that pregnant women and children – the two most vulnerable populations – should be encouraged to eat any quantity of any type of seafood, contradicting the current position of the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that these groups should sharply limit their intake of seafood, especially tuna and other types with high mercury levels.

The report, entitled “An Evaluation of Risk to U.S. Consumers from Methylmercury in Commercial Fishing Products, Including a Quantitative Assessment of Risk and Beneficial Health Effects from Fish,” argues that “the net effect on fetal neurodevelopment from eating commercial fish containing methylmercury…is not necessarily adverse and could in fact be beneficial....”

In a scathing internal memo, dated December 5, 2008, EPA officials blasted the FDA proposal as “over –simplified,” with “serious scientific flaws.” They concluded that “this is not a document that EPA should endorse as it does not reach the level of scientific rigor routinely demonstrated by the Agency.”

The FDA document contends that the health benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids in fish outweigh the risk from exposure to any level of mercury – a toxic metal linked to a number of serious brain and nervous system disorders.

“This is an astonishingly cynical and irresponsible move that jeopardizes the health of all American children,” said EWG Executive Director and co-founder Richard Wiles. “There are many sources of omega-3s that contain no mercury at all, but FDA has failed to promote them. You only get one chance with a child's developing brain. The FDA is willing to gamble it away for a few more dollars for the tuna industry.”

EWG analyses have repeatedly shown that unrestricted consumption of popular fish that are heavily contaminated with mercury, like canned tuna, will expose a fetus to levels of mercury many times above what EPA considers safe. Research by Kathryn Mahaffey, formerly EPA's top scientist on mercury toxicity, shows that blood mercury concentrations were seven times higher in women who ate fish more than twice a week, (as proposed by the FDA report) compared to women who had not eaten fish during the previous month.

The medical literature is rife with cases of people who have suffered chronic and debilitating mercury poisoning from eating three to four meals per week of large ocean-dwelling fish -- exactly what FDA is recommending.

“The FDA was once a fearsome protector of the public health,” said Wiles. “Now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters,” said Wiles. “This is the last nail in the coffin for FDA's credibility.”

"One in 6 pregnancies in the United States are to women with too much mercury in their bodies,” said EWG Senior Scientist Sonya Lunder. “These women can get the essential omega-3 fats from fortified eggs, margarine, walnuts, with none of the mercury. Why take any risks?"

“We urge you to block this eleventh-hour push by FDA to pad the wallets of the seafood industry at the expense of our nation's children,” Wiles wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.