Safe Seafood?

Fish’s health benefits are being lost in fears of mercury contamination.

By Lauren Tepper

March 2007

Capricious. Unpredictable. Mysterious. These are characteristics ascribed to the planet Mercury, from which the earthly heavy metal gets its name. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the risks of mercury in seafood are hard to pin down. Governmental advisories along with many nutritionists and medical professionals assert that within prescribed limits seafood is a safe and essential part of a balanced diet, while dissenting voices urge caution. And media coverage regarding the question of seafood’s safety has been as mercurial as the metal itself.

Recent studies show that many people are packing away the cocktail sauce due to concern and confusion about the dangers of mercury. Is seafood really a good catch, or do the risks outweigh the benefits? Trolling for answers is difficult, as consumers and experts alike have to wade through a plethora of contradictory information.

Troubled Waters

Mercury, a tasteless, colorless, highly toxic metal, exists naturally in the environment, but concentrations have drastically increased since the Industrial Revolution. Coal power plants, gold mines, chemical factories and medical waste are some of the main sources. Mercury seeps into waterways where it is converted to methylmercury, which accumulates in the bodies of living creatures and magnifies up the food chain: As bigger fish eat smaller ones, the amounts of mercury in their tissues can reach dangerous proportions.

According to Tim Fitzgerald, a scientist with the nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Defense, “Mercury is a neurotoxin so it is the biggest risk for children because of their small size, and for women of childbearing age.” Learning disabilities, brain and nervous system damage, autism, and birth defects are among the serious consequences of mercury poisoning. But unfortunately, the same food that harbors this poison is also a panacea for health benefits not easily obtained from any other source.

Heart-Healthy or Harmful?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the general population should eat two six-ounce servings of fish per week. For women of childbearing age and children under 12 years old, the FDA recommends avoiding shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel, species known to be high in mercury. These specific populations should also eat less than six ounces per week of albacore tuna, which has higher mercury levels than light tuna.

Some authorities feel people have over-reacted to the FDA advisories. A study commissioned by the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP) at the University of Maryland found that almost two-thirds of Americans eat less than the recommended amounts of fish. Dr. Maureen Storey, CFNAP director, comments, “The study showed that consumers are confused, and many have misinterpreted the FDA advisories. Really we’re talking about just a few species of fish with levels of mercury that pregnant women, nursing moms and children under the age of 12 should avoid.” And in October 2006 the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine released a study confirming that the benefits of eating seafood in accordance with FDA advisories outweigh the risks.

Environmental and other groups have raised concerns, however, over levels of mercury in seafood and whether the FDA’s standards are strict or comprehensive enough. A 1997 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report noted that even with the FDA limits in place, 7% of American women may be consuming mercury above the EPA’s safe levels. According to the National Research Council, this may result in 60,000 children born each year at risk from exposure to unsafe levels of mercury in utero. “The risks can be very real for certain groups of people,” warns Fitzgerald.

“A lot depends on age, weight, gender and your specific health situation. There are a lot of details missing from the FDA’s advisory.”

Avoiding fish means missing out on its advantages. “I encourage my clients to eat the FDA-recommended amount of fish each week for the health benefits,” states Jeannie Moloo, RD, of the American Dietetic Association. “Fish has been shown to be a very good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and it is known to prevent heart disease.” Research has also linked the omega-3s in fish with reduced risk of diabetes and cancer, improved brain development and functioning, and reduction in depression symptoms. And while omega-3s can be obtained from plant sources such as flax seed oil and walnuts, some dietitians believe the nutritional benefits are not up to par with seafood sources. (Supplemental fish oil is safe if it meets the stringent requirements of California’s Proposition 65, The Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.) Fish is also high in protein but low in the saturated fats found in other types of meat.

Fishing For Answers

To help consumers dive deeper, Environmental Defense has compiled one of the most comprehensive databases at www.oceansalive.org. For each of the 200 species of fish commercially available in the US the site provides nutrition information, contaminant levels and specific recommendations for men, women and children. The site also details the sustainability of fishing practices for each species so consumers can make fish choices that are healthy for the environment, too.

Downloadable “Seafood Selector” cards at the site list “green light” low-mercury fish that are also good for the environment and “red light” fish to avoid. Some of the best choices include wild salmon from Alaska (fresh, frozen and canned), Atlantic mackerel and herring, sardines, sablefish, anchovies and farmed oysters.

Fitzgerald urges people to be proactive. “The more people ask for eco-friendly seafood, the more businesses will respond to that request,” he emphasizes. “Individual purchasing power is remarkably effective. Significant environmental progress can be made by individual consumers buying fish on the green list and telling restaurants not to carry fish on the red.”

So if the maelstrom of conflicting reports has left you feeling seasick, take heart: You don’t have to swear off seafood hook, line and sinker. With the guidelines and resources available you can make educated choices to enjoy seafood’s definite benefits while protecting yourself, your family and the environment.

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