Mercury Tales

Now is the time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to revise their joint seafood consumption advisory on methylmercury, last updated in 2004.

It's evident that the health benefits of seafood consumption far outweigh the risks associated with methylmercury and other toxins. A 109-page, peer-reviewed draft report the FDA released earlier this month lists a number of studies linking intake of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish like salmon to enhanced neurological development and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The report also cites research suggesting that seafood consumption during pregnancy and lactation aids fetal and infant neurodevelopment.

Preventing this evidence from becoming common knowledge among consumers are ambiguous reports from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and media outlets frightening consumers into believing that seafood, and other foods and beverages, are just not worth the risk.

A study published in the journal Environmental Health this week suggests that foods and beverages made with high-fructose corn syrup like candy bars and soda contain traces of mercury. The study was the subject of a Chicago Tribune story yesterday.

The mercury cited in the study is elemental mercury, not methylmercury, the type found in long-living, predatory fish like swordfish. But consumers don't distinguish between the two. Any report that fails to put the risks associated with mercury in context, such as the Tribune story, may cause consumers to err on the side of caution and avoid eating seafood.

Approximately 4.4 million U.S. households earning $30,000 or less - including nearly 260,000 children born to mothers in those households - missed out on the health benefits of canned tuna between 2000 and 2006 because they stopped eating the product, according to a Center for Consumer Freedom report. The cause: the wishy-washy FDA-EPA seafood consumption advisory on methylmercury.

That's why now is the time to revise the advisory to clearly recommend that pregnant woman, nursing mothers and young children eat a variety of seafood regularly instead of focusing the advisory on the health risks tied to eating obscure fish like tilefish and shark. (I've had tilefish only once in my life, and I write about seafood for a living!) The sooner, the better, as this latest story involving mercury in foods only muddies the water for seafood even more.  


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