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Watchdog Groups, Scientists Warn Policymakers on Risks of Fish High in Mercury

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, June 22, 2015

Misguided FDA Advice to Pregnant Women
Infants, children in low income households at greatest risk

CONTACT:
Michael Bender, Mercury Policy Project, mercurypolicy@aol.com, (802) 917-4579
Sara Sciammacco, Environmental Working Group, ssciammacco@ewg.org, (202) 667-6982
Mark Mitchell, National Medical Association Commission on Environmental Health, mmitchell@enviro-md.com, (860) 794-9497

WASHINGTON – Health, environmental justice and consumer watchdog groups are joining independent research scientists to warn policymakers about the serious, if unintended, health risks posed by misguided government advice that could encourage pregnant women to eat unsafe amounts of mercury-laden tuna.

The non-profit organizations and scientists are working to counter a campaign by industrial seafood companies to weaken the Food and Drug Administration’s existing warning that pregnant women should limit their consumption of canned albacore tuna.

The groups, which include the Mercury Policy Project, Environmental Working Group, Clean Water Action and Center for Science in the Public Interest, are focusing their efforts on the severe effects that mercury exposure from tuna can have on neurological health in the womb and in children in the earliest years of life. Children in low-income households are at greatest risk because canned tuna is a readily available low-cost food.

The FDA’s 2014 proposed draft seafood consumption advice recommends that pregnant women more than double their seafood intake while failing to fully consider the risks of mercury exposure. The proposed advice has been championed by major seafood interests, which want regulators to lift the existing warning on consuming albacore tuna, an action that would only increase the risks from mercury.

Public health organizations and experts are concerned that a recent letter to the FDA from a group of U.S. senators could be misconstrued as supporting policies that underestimate the danger that mercury in canned tuna poses to the brains of developing infants and young children.

“Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. “Pregnant women need sound, science-based advice about the benefits of increased seafood consumption, but not at the expense of exposing their babies to a dangerous neurotoxin.”

According to FDA’s own data, tuna is by far the largest source of mercury in the American diet, accounting for an estimated 45 percent of all mercury exposure.  In other words, tuna is responsible for nearly seven times as much exposure as the four fish species – swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish – that FDA currently warns pregnant women not to eat. And a recent study found that mercury levels in yellowfin tuna are increasing at an alarming rate of nearly 4 percent per year, even as mercury levels in the global environment are projected to double by 2050.

“Pregnant women can benefit from eating more seafood, but only when it is low in mercury,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst. “Albacore tuna has three times more mercury than light tuna and is therefore an unhealthy choice for pregnant women and children. EWG’s Seafood Calculator can help families find safer options.”

An estimated 5-to-10 percent of American babies are currently at risk of mercury toxicity based on current fish consumption levels, and this number would increase if women followed the FDA’s draft guidelines to increase seafood consumption during pregnancy.

“Low-income people in particular are more likely to eat canned tuna since it is relatively inexpensive, widely available, does not require refrigeration or cooking and is free to some women through the federal WIC program or through food distribution programs,” said Mark Mitchell, M.D., MPH, co-chair of the National Medical Association Commission on Environmental Health.  “If pregnant women were to consume tuna at the levels suggested by FDA, they would far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s exposure limits.”

Studies published since the 2004 FDA/EPA fish advisory was issued have shown that neurological, developmental and other physiological damage from mercury occurs at levels far below those thought safe a decade ago. More than 25 epidemiological studies on the neurodevelopmental benefits of fish consumption during pregnancy and the harm from prenatal methylmercury exposure have been published in the past decade, most of them since 2010.