Q&A: David Martosko, CCF


Steven Hedlund

Published on
June 10, 2009

As director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), David Martosko is constantly battling misinformation about mercury contamination in seafood. This week, he's attending the ninth annual International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) in Guiyang, China, to stay abreast of the latest research on the neurotoxin, which accumulates in long-living, predatory fish like tuna and swordfish. I caught up with Martosko following Day 4 of the six-day event.

Hedlund: How's this year's conference differed from the 2006 conference in Madison, Wis.?
Martosko: This conference has been a far more pleasant experience than the one in Madison three years ago, mostly because activists from Oceana, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the Mercury Policy Project didn't make the journey. And the organizers are mostly Chinese scientists, whose no-nonsense approach to empirical science stands in stark contrast with some in the North American contingent in 2006, who seemed interested in promoting fear more than research.

Has there been any talk of the origins of mercury in the oceans, i.e. whether Mother Nature is more to blame than humans?
On Wednesday morning there was a brief academic session about this. The big draw was a presentation from a team made up of Harvard and U.S. Geological Survey scientists, who say they've been able to track mercury in the Pacific Ocean to industrial emissions in Asia. If this is true, it would be a point scored by researchers, who seem desperate to prove that human-caused pollution is putting mercury into the oceans.

Their study, first published in May, claimed that "increased mercury emissions from human sources across the globe, and in particular from Asia, make their way into the North Pacific Ocean and as a result contaminate tuna and other seafood."

But this conclusion is a little bit hard to swallow since they only measured mercury in seawater, not fish. Personally, I'm not convinced. There are some leaps of logic in there, and it's already been pretty well decided (in a court of law, no less) that mercury in the marine environment is nearly 100 percent natural.

Has there been any talk of whether mercury content in fish is increasing?

I haven't seen any discussion of this point during the conference. Most of the seafood-related research presented this week has been about measuring mercury levels in humans, and trying to determine whether or not they actually impact our health. That's where the rubber meets the road, after all. And study after study keeps making disclaimers about how researchers just can't link mercury levels to any actual symptoms of illness.

But I don't think anyone has given up on the question of whether methylmercury levels are increasing in fish. It's just that human studies are more likely to get the public's attention, which generates prestige for universities. And that can translate into grant dollars. You get the picture.

How much of the conference has revolved around the mercury-in-seafood debate and its effects on public health?
Far less than in 2006. I would say only about 20 percent of this event is seafood-related. The biggest focus is mercury emissions from coal-burning electricity generation, from gold mining and metal smelting, and from other "industrial" sources. Which makes sense, considering that the Chinese province of Guizhou is home to China's biggest mercury mining operations. But the loaded question of whether our seafood is slowly killing us (answer: it's not) is still on the front burner for many of the conference participants.

The CCF "Tuna Meltdown" report was recently re-released. What new information is in the latest report, and why was it re-released?

We wanted to re-release the report to coincide with this conference because we thought the Center for Consumer Freedom needed a higher profile in the scientific community. And so much has happened in the last year since we first rolled the report out.

We've seen startling new research showing that pregnant mothers should eat more fish than the federal government's advisory permits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing a whole new way to approach seafood risk management by factoring in the health benefits for the first time. And California's reckless crusade to slap warning labels on tuna cans was rejected by an appeals court panel.

All of this new information made our central argument - that our poorest children were actually being harmed by government seafood warnings - even stronger. So we wanted to bring everything up to date. We've distributed hundreds of copies at the conference here in China, and it will be available to download at www.MercuryFacts.org next week.

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