- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Poor albacore (white) tuna. This tasty, healthy food has gotten caught in the nets of environmental protectors who say methyl mercury contamination makes the fish unfit for childbearing women, nursing mothers and small children to eat.

The mercury is said to get into oceans, lakes and rivers — and then into seafood — as a result of emissions from coal-burning power plants.

No one disputes that mercury can be found in almost all seafood, nor that mercury levels in seafood pose no risks to boys and men, babies older than 2 years and postmenopausal women. In certain amounts, though, the heavy metal could interfere with development of the brain and nervous system in the fetus and infants. How much is dangerous? This is a critical question at the core of heated controversy.

Let’s look at some numbers. According to a yardstick developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration and National Academy of Sciences, women and babies can safely eat 0.1 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of body weight each day.

In turn, the blood level of mercury would hover around 5.8 parts per billion, which is called a reference dose and is the lowest point in a 10-fold safety range. Therefore, as much as 58 ppb could be harmless, though federal officials say they prefer no one gets that high.

EPA and FDA arrived at their numbers based on studies of native populations that eat a lot of fish and show no ill effects on adults or offspring.

Given that some risk does exist, FDA and EPA have issued the following advice to the public: Women planning to become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and children younger than 2 should avoid four fish species that may have high levels of mercury: shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. The sensitive groups of women and infants should eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish and shellfish lower in mercury — for example, shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. The 12 ounces could contain up to 6 ounces of canned albacore (white) tuna, which has more mercury than canned light tuna.

The government advisory caused an uproar by environmental groups. The Environmental Working Group, one of the most vocal of the groups, charged, “If women follow the FDA’s advice and eat one can of albacore tuna a week, hundreds of thousands more babies will be exposed to hazardous levels of mercury.” EWG also predicted: “By eating 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna each week, a woman of average size (140 pounds) would exceed a safe dose of mercury by 30 percent,” because her blood level would reach 8.6 ppb.

That 8.6 ppb is no cause for alarm, assures FDA. Some groups, said an agency spokesperson, see the RfD of 5.8 “as a bright red line with no buffer either way. But there is no evidence to back that up.”

“We know there will be people above the reference dose, above the tenfold safety factor. But not far above it. They will be in the zone of safety,” said David Acheson, M.D., FDA chief medical officer. What’s more, the government wants people not to be afraid to eat fish, especially since most Americans do not eat enough of it.

Dr. Acheson emphasized: “We believe two servings a week, or 12 ounces a week, will offer benefits. Most people do not eat two servings of fish a week. If we can get people to eat two servings a week, that would be great. … We are trying … to emphasize the positive message. It is important for people to understand fish is good for you.”

That brings us to a major point on which all sides agree: Expectant and nursing mothers need to eat seafood fish because it contains rich stores of omega three fatty acids, nutrients essential to the brain and nervous system.

Average fish and seafood consumption in the U.S. is 19 pounds a year, compared to approximately 70 pounds each of poultry and meat. Among the seafood varieties Americans consume, tuna is relatively popular, accounting for almost 20 percent. Sadly, however, the environmentalists’ attack on the government’s seafood advisory seems to frighten consumers away from all tuna, indeed all fish, and the consequences could be more worrisome than the mercury pollution.

Too little seafood in the diets of pregnant and nursing mothers deprive the unborn and the infant of the omega three fatty acids which they require.

If pregnant and nursing women are not eating fish, the infant will pull omega three fatty acids from the mother’s tissues and membranes, explained Joyce Nettelson, a nutrition scientist and independent consultant in Denver. Then, in subsequent pregnancies, the women have less available for additional children.

Environmentalists focus on tuna as a way to forward their crusade for tighter regulation of coal-burning power plants. Mike Casey, EWG’s public affairs vice president, accuses FDA of “soft pedaling health information to women because mercury contamination of tuna is how coal-burning plants end up on your fork. It is a powerful industry.”

Miss Nettelson among others would like the issues separated. “I would be happy to put scrubbers on coal-burning plants, but that’s not going to happen in this administration” she said. “Please do not take one of the healthy foods out of the food supply.”

Goody L. Solomon is executive editor of Food Nutrition Health News Service in D.C.

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