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Fish and Shellfish: Contamination Problems Preclude Inclusion in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Spring 2004 www.pcrm.org

Government Warnings

Recently, the Joint Federal Advisory Panel of the EPA and the FDA issued its “2004 Consumer Advisory: What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish,”24 which gives the following advice for women who might become pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children:

1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.

2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.

Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions.

While these warnings may seem sufficiently strict and detailed at first glance, many scientists and organizations have argued that they are not strict or clear enough to truly protect the consumer from harm. Organizations as varied as the Consumers Union, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Wildlife Federation joined Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project in signing a letter to the FDA urging better protections for women and children from exposure to mercury. These organizations argue that current guidelines do not effectively protect sensitive populations from excess exposure to methylmercury from fish; they also say that efforts to monitor mercury levels in the food supply need great improvement.3 For example, the mercury levels in some types of fish are derived from data collected in 1978. Even the figures from a 1990–92 FDA survey are likely to be outdated, since mercury pollution is largely due to industrial combustion of coal and other human-generated wastes, which may have significantly increased in scope and volume over the past decade.2

Vas Aposhian, a toxicologist and professor of molecular and cell biology and pharmacology at the University of Arizona who served as a key advisor on mercury issues to the FDA and EPA, reported that mercury levels in albacore tuna are so high consumers should avoid the fish completely. Dr. Aposhian also criticized the food industry for exerting influence to weaken mercury warnings.25

Contamination is widespread. The EPA’s fact sheet “Update: National Listing of Fish and Wildlife Advisories” covering PCBs, dioxins, mercury, and chlordane notes that as of 2002, 28 states had statewide advisories. Overall, the 2,800 advisories in the national listing account for about one-third of the nation’s lakes and about 15 percent of its total river miles; this includes each of the Great Lakes and their connecting water ways.13 Mercury advisories are especially common, but New York, Washington, the District of Columbia, and most New England states also have advisories for PCBs, cadmium, and dioxins.13

Go on to: Nutrient Composition of Fish
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