Sayonara sushi?

Posted: Mar 14, 2006 12:05 AM

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. 

The FDA has written that its mercury “Action Level” of 1.0 part-per-million “was established to limit consumers’ methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects.”  The same goes for the EPA’s recommended “Reference Dose.” As David Martosko of the the Center for Consumer Freedom said about the recent sushi scare, “Sounding health alarms about mercury levels this low is like worrying about driving a car at one-tenth the speed limit.”

Debunking the Hype

Armed with these basic facts, you’ll be able to debunk most of the scare reports yourself.  For instance, when you hear that a Greenpeace report has found that “one in five women of childbearing age that were tested have mercury levels exceeding the EPA’s recommended limit,” you’ll be able to ask: “How much were the levels exceeded – 1% or 800%?” 

Then, even if you didn’t realize that Greenpeace only published part of that study that it had funded (and not the part that found that “the current results do not provide evidence of an increasing or decreasing trend… in mercury concentrations for a given amount of fish consumption), you’ll still be one step ahead of any of your neurotic friends.

Let’s look at what else the media is missing:

  • A new study of Seychelles Islands indicates that mothers who ate a lot of fish during pregnancy had children who outperformed other kids whose mothers ate less fish. 
  • Alaska’s Public Health Department tested the hair of eight 550-year-old Alaskan mummies for mercury and found levels averaging twice the blood-mercury concentration of today’s Alaskans. (I love the Center for Consumer Freedom’s response:  “Perhaps those paleo-Inuits should have spent their time picketing mercury-spewing undersea volcanoes instead of fishing.”)
  • Dr. Joshua Cohen of Harvard University believes the health benefits of fish outweigh any potential risk, noting recently on Good Morning America, “If people ate more fish, then the number of heart attacks and strokes would decrease.”

Now, I’m not going to tell you to throw caution to the wind and adopt an “eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” mentality.  Those of you who are pregnant, nursing, or thinking of becoming pregnant in the next year should follow your doctors’ recommendations, since children are at the most risk of having brain development affected by high doses of mercury.

The rest of you, however, should be able to eat your sushi, crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, and tuna fish sandwiches in moderation and with clear consciences.  No need to miss out on the tastiness and health benefits of fish and shellfish because of a few nervous ninnies in the media.

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