As FDA, Advisory Panel Discuss Whether to Tell Women About Mercury Contamination, New FDA Tests Show Higher Than Expected Mercury

WASHINGTON — Results of new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fish tests show that mercury contamination of canned tuna and other fish is more serious than agency scientists previously assumed.

Top FDA officials meet this Wednesday and Thursday with members of an agency advisory panel to review what the FDA should tell consumers about fish — particularly tuna, which comprises one-quarter of all seafood sales in the nation.

The data, obtained from the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), show that canned albacore, known as white tuna, had mercury levels twice as high as past FDA estimates for canned tuna, and three time the levels in light tuna. EWG published its analysis of the FDA test results today.

The new FDA data show other fish popular with consumers, including grouper, orange roughy and sea bass, are even more contaminated. But like canned albacore, these high-mercury species were not added to a newly proposed FDA list of fish that pregnant women should avoid in order to protect their babies. The agency's consumer advice and the science underlying it are the subjects of this week's meeting.

Mercury is toxic to the developing brain and nervous system, and it can have permanent effects on intelligence, speech and motor development of children after they are born. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have levels of mercury in their blood that present developmental risks for their babies.

A 2001 EWG investigation showed that FDA officials had quashed findings of public opinion research on how to tell women about mercury contamination of seafood. The suppressing of the findings came after meetings with tuna industry lobbyists. The revelations led to the creation of the Food Advisory Committee, which in turn recommended to the FDA that it develop a warning to women about mercury in tuna fish. The FDA's current warning omits tuna.

"This is where mercury pollution gets to the end of Americans' forks. The FDA has put off leveling with consumers for three years. Now its newest research shows the need to act is stronger than ever before," said EWG analyst Sean Gray. "It's time to make tuna baby-safe."

News of these high mercury levels in popular fish species comes just a week after the Bush Administration proposed a major rollback of the mercury pollution reduction goals adopted by the Clinton EPA, which will result in higher mercury pollution over a more prolonged period, increasing the risk of fish contamination.

EWG has advocated strong, clear warnings to pregnant women on canned tuna consumption, and reduction of mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants and other sources to eventually make tuna baby-safe.

EWG is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that uses the power of information to protect the environment and human health.

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