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Biased Conference Likely to Downplay Mercury in Seafood Risks

Mercury in Seafood Experts Not Invited to NOAA-Sponsored Conference

The Seafood and Health Conference begins today with a fishing industry-biased agenda that excludes experts about the risks of mercury in seafood based their research or the overwhelming scientific evidence available. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the lead sponsor of the conference, failed to respond to the public outcry for a balanced panel of experts on mercury in seafood. On November 22, 2005, public health and environmental groups wrote to NOAA Fisheries Director, William Hogarth, requesting that the conference to be balanced with expert scientists and physicians to discuss the risks of mercury in seafood. The Seafood and Health Conference runs December 5 through 7, 2005, in Washington, DC.

“Our tax dollars are being wasted to promote seafood at the expense of the health of women and children in this country,” said Eli Saddler, a public health specialist and attorney for GotMercury.org. He continued, “Instead of a serious public forum on mercury and seafood risks, conference organizers failed to include prominent physicians and scientists whose studies have demonstrated that mercury in fish, such as tuna and swordfish, is a public health threat.”

GotMercury.Org, a project of Turtle Island Restoration Network, joined other public health and environmental groups in a letter to William Hogarth of NOAA Fisheries. Groups requested that additional experts be included whose work explores the deleterious health effects of mercury in seafood. Groups further protested the hefty conferences fees (except for media and dietitians) that prevented many public health and environmental NGOs from attending to express concerns over mercury in seafood. NOAA gave no response to the November 22, 2005, letter and the conference agenda remains unchanged after the outcry by groups concerned about the health risks of mercury in fish.

“The science is clear – fish high in mercury are dangerous, especially to women and children,” stated Eli Saddler, public health specialist and attorney at GotMercury.Org. Saddler continued, “Instead of educating the public about the FDA and EPA warnings about mercury in seafood, this conference will likely continue to understate the threat of mercury, a known neurotoxin. Ultimately, the children of this country will pay the price for promoting tuna and other fish high in mercury.”

In March 2004, the FDA and EPA released a joint advisory that instructed women and children not to eat fish high in mercury: swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel. The government warning also advised those same at risk groups to reduce tuna consumption.

According to the EPA, one in six women of childbearing age in the U.S. has unsafe blood levels of mercury. However, the FDA estimates that only between 30 and 50 percent of women are unaware of the risks. Mercury in seafood is a significant public health hazard because nearly all fish are contaminated with mercury. Fish that live longer or grow large contain more mercury than short-lived, smaller fish species. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that women in coastal areas had twice as high blood levels of mercury as did women living inland. Another recent study found that 17 percent of Asian, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and multiethnic women had mercury blood levels exceeding the EPA safety limits, which is higher than other populations.

Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island, said, “The $1.5 billion tuna industry does not need marketing assistance from the federal government that further exposes mothers and children to the dangers of consuming seafood high in mercury. The government’s resources would be better used to ensure that families can make informed decisions about mercury in seafood and to promote sustainable fisheries.” Steiner added, “It is shocking that our government has failed to educate families about avoiding fish high in mercury, but is sponsoring a conference with a clear bias to promoting a pro-industry view on the threat.”

Methylmercury—the organic form of mercury found in nearly all seafood—is a potent neurotoxin that can cause nervous system and brain damage in developing fetuses, infants, and young children. Methylmercury also causes neurological damage, cardiac disease, and other birth defects. Human mercury comes primarily from the consumption of mercury-contaminated seafood.

A recent study of swordfish in the US found that about half exceeded the 1-ppm safety levels set by the FDA. A study by the Turtle Island Restoration Network also showed that mercury levels in swordfish were significantly higher on average than what the FDA reports. Therefore, the risk from exposure to mercury in seafood, such as tuna and swordfish, is more serious than even the government reports.

Mercury contamination of seafood is an ongoing public health threat. The FDA warns pregnant women to “protect your unborn child by not eating these large fish that can contain high levels of methylmercury: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.” Furthermore, the California Attorney General’s mercury waning sign states that women of childbearing age should also “limit their consumption of other fish, including fresh or frozen tuna” (bold text in original). The Attorney General’s website is at: http://caag.state.ca.us.

Turtle Island Restoration Network and the As You Sow Foundation filed the original notice of intent to sue supermarkets and restaurants for failure to post Prop 65 warnings in 2002. California’s Attorney General took up the lawsuits against supermarkets and restaurants failure to warn consumers. Proposition 65 is a California consumer right-to-know law that requires businesses selling products known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm to notify customers. In February 2005, Attorney General Lockyer settled with major restaurant chains, but the lawsuit against grocery stores and canned tuna companies continues. California’s mercury in seafood warning signs are based on the March 2004 FDA and EPA advisory on methylmercury in fish.

GotMercury.Org and TIRN have created an online calculator in both English and Spanish for consumers to estimate their own mercury exposure from eating seafood by visiting www.GotMercury.org. GotMercury.Org has plans to launch this valuable tool in additional languages in 2006.

GotMercury.Org and TIRN campaigns have pressured supermarket chains, such as Safeway, Albertsons, Wal-Mart, and others, to post mercury in seafood warning signs at the point of sale, not only in California, but also in all their grocery stores across the nation. Simple, inexpensive signs at seafood counters, frozen food sections, and canned tuna sections are a direct method of warning families about mercury risks.

Available Resources:

1. Consumers can calculate their mercury exposure from seafood: www.gotmercury.org.
2. B-roll of mercury in seafood images
3. Electronic Press Kit: www.gotmercury.org/info
4. Seafood and Health Conference: http://www.seafoodandhealth.org/
5. Interviews with mercury poisoned women and children available.
6. FDA and EPA Consumer Advisory on Methylmercury in Fish: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html.