Mercury and fish a killer combo


The Chicago Tribune has a series of expose articles about mercury, fish, and the willful ignorance of the U.S. government. Regular readers of this page know this is a topic frequently discussed here. We find it quite despicable that the FDA is unwilling to protect consumers, even going so far as to avoid testing shrimp, for example, so as to not be forced to issue warnings. From my perspective, the FDA is simply corrupt, more concerned with protecting profits of the fishing industry than with protecting citizens.

Chicago Tribune news: Toxic risk on your plate
Supermarkets throughout the Chicago area are routinely selling seafood highly contaminated with mercury, a toxic metal that can cause learning disabilities in children and neurological problems in adults, a Tribune investigation has found.

In one of the nation's most comprehensive studies of mercury in commercial fish, testing by the newspaper showed that a variety of popular seafood was so tainted that federal regulators could confiscate the fish for violating food safety rules.

The testing also showed that mercury is more pervasive in fish than what the government has told the public, making it difficult for consumers to avoid the problem, no matter where they shop.

It is not by happenstance that contaminated fish can be found on shelves and at seafood counters throughout the region, from small neighborhood shops on the South Side to sprawling supermarket chain stores in the northwest suburbs.

The Tribune's investigation reveals a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government knowingly allowing millions of Americans to eat seafood with unsafe levels of mercury.

Regulators have repeatedly downplayed the hazards, failed to take basic steps to protect public health and misled consumers about the true dangers, documents and interviews show.

The government does not seize high-mercury fish that violate U.S. limits. Regulators do not even inspect seafood for mercury--not in ports, processing plants or supermarkets.

In fact, federal officials have tested so few fish that they have only a limited idea of how much mercury many species contain, government data show. For example, the government has tested just four walleye and 24 shrimp samples since 1978. The newspaper tested more samples of commercial walleye than the government has in the last quarter-century.

The fishing industry also has failed consumers. The newspaper's investigation found that U.S. tuna companies often package and sell a high-mercury tuna species as canned light tuna--a product the government specifically recommends as a low-mercury choice.

The consequence is that eating canned tuna--one of the nation's most popular foods--is far more hazardous than what the government and industry have led consumers to believe.

...The nation's overall food safety system has been repeatedly criticized for flawed inspections and limited enforcement. But several government studies have singled out the FDA for not doing enough to ensure fish is safe to eat.

The FDA, for instance, does not require exporting countries to maintain safety, sanitation and inspection programs comparable with the U.S. system, even though 80 percent of the seafood that Americans consume is imported. By contrast, the Department of Agriculture, which monitors meat and poultry, requires every exporter to meet such standards.

there is hope because mercury is not a permanent addition to one's body (unlike some other pollutants).

Mercury does not stay in the body forever, Hightower said. It takes six months to a year for the metal to leave a person's bloodstream.

more excerpts below (the Trib puts articles behind firewall rather quickly)

Also, there's a small flash movie interviewing one of the authors of this article here

The newspaper randomly selected supermarket chain stores and fish markets in the Chicago area and bought 18 samples each of eight kinds of fish, including two types of canned tuna. The samples were sent for analysis to a laboratory at Rutgers University, which has performed some of the nation's only studies of mercury in store-bought seafood.

In the Tribune tests, some popular fish, such as swordfish, showed extremely high levels of mercury; other fish, such as salmon, had low amounts. Mercury levels varied widely in most kinds of fish tested, sometimes spiking far higher in individual samples than the averages reported by the government.

High levels also were found in two species for which the government has not issued consumer warnings: orange roughy and walleye.

Many of the walleye contained so much mercury that the country supplying it, Canada, could ban the fish from being sold within its borders because the contamination violated Canadian safety standards.

Some samples of grouper, tuna steak and canned tuna were so high in mercury that millions of American women would exceed the U.S. mercury exposure limit by eating just one 6-ounce meal in a week. This conclusion is based on applying a federal formula for the acceptable amount of mercury in the bloodstream to a 161-pound woman, the government's estimated average weight of a U.S. female of childbearing age.


Almost all the mercury that people are exposed to comes from eating fish. And almost all fish contain some amounts of the metal, much of which falls into oceans, lakes and streams from air pollution.

Some of that pollution can travel around the world before falling to the ground. So emissions from a factory in China can pollute a lake in America and vice versa. Mercury also occurs naturally in rock and soil and is continually being released into the oceans through erosion and underwater volcanoes.

In water, bacteria chemically alter mercury, creating a highly toxic form called methylmercury, which the tiniest fish eat or absorb. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, mercury accumulates up the food chain, with the largest predators, such as shark and swordfish, generally containing the most.

At the top of the food chain are people. And because mercury passes easily through the placenta and can harm the developing nervous system, fetuses and small children are most vulnerable to its effects.

Many experts now believe that even tuna-fish sandwiches--a favorite of the American diet--can be risky for children.

“The fact that we poisoned our air and our oceans to such an extent that we can't eat a damn tuna sandwich is just diabolical,” said Ayelet Waldman, a noted mystery author whose daughter was diagnosed with mercury poisoning at age 5 after frequently eating tuna.

“You spend so much time as a parent making the world safe for your children,” Waldman said. “We strap 75 different kinds of helmets on our kids, and here I was exposing [her to a] neurotoxin in the food I was giving her because I thought it was healthier.”

Solving the mercury problem ultimately will require reducing levels of the pollutant in the environment, according to the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's leading scientific advisory body. For now, though, the academy says consumers can best protect themselves by eating low-mercury fish.

...For example, 15 of the orange roughy samples the Tribune bought had high levels.

The testing also indicates mercury levels can vary widely even within a given species. A sample of orange roughy from Dominick's in suburban Crestwood had seven times more mercury than a piece from Jewel on North Elston Avenue in Chicago.

Though some of the Tribune's results were in line with previous limited U.S. sampling, others represented the first thorough testing of certain fish in years.

The FDA has tested only four walleye samples since 1978, 14 fewer than the Tribune. The newspaper found that walleye averaged 0.51 parts of mercury per million parts of fish tissue.

That may sound like a tiny amount, but mercury is so toxic that, by one estimate, a teaspoon of the metal is enough to contaminate a small lake. The amount the Tribune found in walleye, which was imported from Canada, is above the limit at which Canadian officials can ban fish from sale within that country's borders.

Four of the walleye samples were even above the much weaker U.S. limit of 1 part per million.

update: more on the FDA here



Suddenly my lunch of volcano roll and salmon sashimi is less appetizing...

Salmon isn't so bad. What's a volcano roll?

It's a large tempura fried prawn, rolled in crab meat, then capped with avacado. The local rotating sushi joint specializes in this sort of decadence.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on December 11, 2005 10:18 AM.

It Takes a Potemkin Village was the previous entry in this blog.

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