Top federal health officials released long-awaited advice to consumers on Friday on how to avoid eating mercury in fish and for the first time suggested limiting consumption of popular white albacore canned tuna for children and women who are particularly vulnerable to the toxic metal.
Top federal health officials released long-awaited advice to consumers on Friday on how to avoid eating mercury in fish and for the first time suggested limiting consumption of popular white albacore canned tuna for children and women who are particularly vulnerable to the toxic metal. The advisory from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency comes after months of controversy and the discovery of high mercury levels in some of the most popular types of fish in the American diet. Although the recommendations have no binding force, they carry enormous weight as a guide to states, physicians, nutritionists and the public on how to best control mercury in the food supply. Despite singling out albacore tuna as moderately high in mercury, the guidelines were praised by the canned-tuna industry for emphasizing the health benefits of eating fish. But environmental health advocacy organizations said the new guidelines don’t go nearly far enough in warning consumers of the mercury danger. After the release of the new advisory Friday, a nationally known mercury expert, Vas Aposhian, a University of Arizona professor of molecular and cellular biology, resigned from the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee, saying the FDA ignored the committee’s recommendations. The advisory sets a weekly allowance on albacore tuna at 6 ounces — or roughly one standard-size can — for those considered sensitive to mercury, including children, pregnant and nursing women, or any woman who may become pregnant. That amount of white albacore canned tuna is “dangerous to the health of 99 percent of U.S. pregnant women and their unborn children,” said Aposhian, a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed and approved the EPA’s mercury safety guideline. The FDA’s Food Safety Group fails to meet the high standard of its Therapeutic Drug Approval Group, he said. Sensitive individuals may safely eat up to 12 ounces a week of certain fish species with relatively low mercury levels, as long as they avoid high-mercury swordfish, shark, king mackerel and Gulf of Mexico tilefish, according to the advisory. The five most commonly eaten types of seafood low in mercury are shrimp, chunk light canned tuna, salmon, catfish and pollack, which is frequently used in frozen fish sticks. Children are cautioned to eat smaller portions than adults, but no specific amounts were included in the guidelines. Men were offered no specific advice at all, other than to eat a balanced diet of fish. The agencies said they wanted to warn people about mercury, known to damage the human nervous system, and at the same time persuade them to eat a wholesome food low in artery-clogging fat and cholesterol and rich in protein and heart-healthy omega fatty acids. “Americans can and should feel comfortable in consuming fish,” Lester Crawford, FDA deputy commissioner, told reporters during a Washington, D.C., news conference. Government test results have found that albacore tuna had mercury levels three times higher than the chunk light tuna. The advisories that resulted from those findings represent “a conservative approach,” Crawford said. The U.S. Tuna Foundation, which represents StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and other canned tuna producers, issued a statement applauding the FDA for taking care to “affirm the nutritional benefits of seafood” and for emphasizing that “consumption advice is not necessary for the general population.” Dozens of consumer, health and environmental groups have been pressuring the government to adopt tougher regulations on mercury in fish as well as on mercury emissions from power plants. Critics charged that albacore mercury levels are so high that the 6-ounce recommended weekly allowance would expose fetuses, infants, toddlers and growing young people to levels many times higher than the EPA’s safety guideline. “If American women follow the FDA’s advice and eat a can of albacore tuna a week, a bad situation will be made far, far worse,” said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group in Washington. He said the advisory “flies in the face of all scientific understanding of the hazards of mercury to children.” Fish contaminated in oceans and lakes are the main source of mercury in the human diet. The primary sources are coal-fired power plants, incinerators and mines. Mercury can cause irreversible damage to the developing central nervous system. Mothers eating mercury-contaminated fish may expose their offspring to chronic, low doses resulting in lowered IQ, abnormal muscle tone and loss of motor function, among other difficulties. Using 1999-2000 data, EPA researchers recently analyzed blood mercury concentrations in women to estimate how many newborns might have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb. They found that about 630,000 newborns — or more than 15 percent of the total born — may have been exposed before birth to mercury at levels that are considered to increase risk of adverse neurological developmental effects. A San Francisco pediatrician, Dr. Michelle Pepitone, expressed disappointment that the advisory wasn’t more protective. “The government is shirking its duty to protect our children. I’m shocked and saddened,” she said. Pepitone is advising her young patients not to eat tuna. “At this time, I think we’re stuck with free-range salmon, flaxseed and canola oil,” Pepitone said. One of her young patients, 10-year-old Matthew Davis, ate tuna fish almost every day over a year’s time. His fingers began to look deformed, and he was having trouble playing the guitar. Tests showed he had more than twice the normal level of mercury in his body. No one can say whether mercury contributed to his problems or his sudden lack of focus at school, said his mother, San Francisco resident Joan Davis. But she’s seen dramatic improvements since he’s been off tuna for four months. “At school, they’ve noticed quite an improvement. His focus is much stronger, and his verbal ability is back. He can now play the guitar,” Davis said. She called for stronger government warnings, including labels on tuna cans. “I wish we would have known,” Davis said.(Source: Medline Plus, March 2004)