Mercury in Fish: An Agency Conflicted

Mercury in Fish: An Agency Conflicted

Rene Ebersole
Published: 12/12/2008

How's this for political flip-flopping? Despite years of notifying consumers about the dangers of eating fish tainted with mercury, the Food and Drug Administration is now taking steps to reverse its position on the issue, reports the Washington Post. Only four years ago the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency released a joint advisory that seafood contaminated with mercury could pose serious health risks for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants, and children. In a draft proposal to the government, the FDA now says the health benefits of eating seafood exceed the risks of consuming mercury-laden fish. The underlying message: people should eat more fish.

Get ready for a food fight.

The FDA and the EPA already appear to be at odds. Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post writes:
 

“The FDA's recommendations have alarmed scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, who in internal memos criticized them as 'scientifically flawed and inadequate' and said they fell short of the 'scientific rigor routinely demonstrated by EPA.'”

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon reportedly declined to discuss the draft proposal with Layton because it is still in “internal review.”

Some mercury occurs naturally in the environment, but coal-fired power plants are by far biggest contributor, puffing copious amounts of mercury-laden pollutants into the air. Once in the atmosphere, mercury settles in rivers and streams, where it dissolves to become methylmercury. Fish easily absorb the methylmercury while foraging for food, and the contaminant increases in concentration as it moves up the food chain to the biggest fish—then to humans. For precisely that reason, the previous FDA and EPA warning recommended that women and children avoid shark, swordfish, King Mackerel, and tilefish—big species that carry some of the highest levels of mercury—and limit consumption of others, like tuna.

Studies suggest mercury can cause impaired neurological development in babies, as well as impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and spatial skills. If that’s not enough reason to be cautious, what is?

If you want to find out how to curb your exposure to mercury, the Natural Resources Defense Council offers a helpful pocket guide that specifically zeroes in on the toxin in seafood.

Also check out the new book Diagnosis Mercury, by Jane Hightower, who chronicles her experience as a diagnostician seeing many patients with serious, unexplainable ailments, but, she says, little in common—except a hearty appetite for certain types of fish. Hightower’s book attemps to investigate the modern prevalence of mercury sickness, and how money, politics, and poison can team up to endanger public health.

It looks like the FDA better be ready to defend its about-face—or duck. There could be some rotten tomatoes headed its way.