Jennifer Biddison

Ah, fish.  Not only are they tasty and usually low-fat, they’re chock-full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, high-quality protein, essential nutrients, and… poisonous levels of mercury?

After reading recent media reports, you’d think we all need to give up fish right now in order to avoid dying from too much mercury consumption.  Eat too much sushi, and you might as well be the next one chopped up and dipped in soy sauce.  But how much faith should we really put into these reports?

The problem is that two interest groups are fighting to control the debate.  On the one side, industry-hating Greens are hyping the dangers of mercury as part of a campaign to insert more regulations into the Clean Air Act.  After all, some of the mercury in the world’s water supply is a result of contamination by power plants.

On the other side, the food industry is looking out for its own.  Some of these groups are out to convince Americans that there’s nothing to be worried about.  In the end, consumers should be thoughtful and educated.  By examining the facts and not overreacting, we can have our fish and eat it too.

The Facts

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency tend to lean on different sides of the fish debate – the FDA on the side of consumption, and the EPA on the side of caution.  But in 2004, they issued a joint report for those most at risk of mercury harm (mothers-to-be, nursing moms, and young children).  The agencies offered three common-sense recommendations that will allow women and children to “receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.”  These recommendations are what doctors often hand to their pregnancy-minded patients.

In addition to heeding the recommendations in this report, we can look at the guidelines of what constitutes a risky level of mercury consumption.  The environmental groups panic when tests show that mercury levels exceed the FDA and EPA’s recommended limits – but those limits have a 1000% safety margin built into them.  In other words, there’s probably no reason to worry if you’re above the limit – unless you’re 800% over it.  And you’ll rarely find someone with that level unless her legs turn into fins in the bathtub.