FDA Should Begin Regular Testing for Mercury in Fish

By December 13, 2005Got Mercury?

FDA Continues to Fail to Protect Women and Children from Mercury-Contaminated Fish by Taking No Action on Actionable Levels

Forest Knolls, CA – GotMercury.Org calls upon the FDA to require regular testing of seafood for high levels of mercury and to remove fish above the FDA’s own “action level” of 1 part per million (ppm). Currently, the FDA does not have a system of monitoring seafood for mercury and is not taking action to remove mercury-contaminated seafood from the market. Rapid, low-cost testing technology exists to permit the FDA to screen for mercury exceeding 1 ppm without compromising seafood freshness.

“The time has come for the FDA to conduct regular, widespread testing of seafood to protect mothers and children from mercury,” said Eli Saddler, a public health specialist and attorney for GotMercury.Org. Saddler continued, “The FDA is failing to take action when fish exceed the FDA’s own 1-ppm action level and is ignoring the obvious need for extensive, unbiased testing of mercury in our nation‘s seafood supply.”

The FDA does not have a regular program of seafood monitoring for mercury and permits the importation of mercury-contaminated fish that exceeds its own 1-ppm safety standard – despite evidence that some fish high in mercury, such as swordfish and tuna, regularly exceed that amount. Even the FDA’s own data shows that swordfish tested can exceed these action levels, but the FDA has not done any significant testing of fish in several years. The FDA should regularly publish its results from seafood monitoring for mercury.

In Europe and Canada, governments monitor seafood regularly and deny the importation of mercury-contaminated seafood that exceeds safety standards. Both Europe and Canada have stricter 0.5 ppm mercury standards though there are is a 1-ppm exception standard for higher mercury fish, such as swordfish, tuna, shark, and marlin. In 2004, European Union countries removed swordfish from the market 30 times – an increase over 2003. Canada requires that at least five percent of fish imports be tested. Furthermore, Health Canada advises women to limit fresh or frozen tuna consumption to one meal per month only – a stronger recommendation than the FDA advises. By comparison, the FDA has done little testing – only testing four samples of swordfish and only two samples of fresh or frozen tuna since 2000.

Low-cost, rapid testing technology is available to provide immediate results using on a tiny sample of fish. Seafood freshness is assured since tests can be done rapidly and seafood distributors can, without delay, deliver fish to markets that have been screened. A grocery store chain in California will begin mercury labeling in early 2006. The FDA has an affordable, practical method for protecting our seafood supply from fish exceeding 1 ppm of mercury.

The recent Chicago Tribune investigation (December 11th, 12th and 13th) tested multiple fish species and found many had extremely high levels of mercury, more than currently reported by the FDA. For example, swordfish tested averaged 1.41 ppm, compared to the 0.97 ppm average reported by the FDA. Orange roughy and walleye tested by the Tribune were higher than albacore tuna, which is under FDA advisory.

Since March 2004, GotMercury.Org has provided free, online mercury in seafood calculator based on the EPA‘s reference dose limits and using available government mercury in fish studies (www.GotMercury.org) and, in 2005, released a Spanish version, www.gotmercury.org/espanol. GotMercury.Org was started to educate the public, especially women and children, about the March 2004 EPA and FDA warnings about mercury in seafood. GotMercury.Org is a project of the Mercury Education and Response Campaign (MERC) of Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN).

Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island, said, “An extensive mercury testing program is feasible with new technology that provides immediate test results that can protect the health of women and children.” Steiner added, “The minimal cost to test fish is something the FDA and seafood purveyors should be aggressively pursuing.”

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. Proposition 65 is a California toxic substance consumer right to know law requiring businesses to post warnings. Some restaurant chains settled in February 2005. An interim settlement is in place for supermarket chains. California’s lawsuits against canned tuna companies (Starkist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea) concluded last week in San Francisco.

GotMercury.Org and TIRN successfully campaigned to ask Safeway to post mercury in seafood warnings in all their stores nationwide. In June 2005, GotMercury.Org ran a full-page advertisement calling upon Safeway to post warnings. In September 2005, GotMercury.Org and Oceana united to call upon all major grocery chains to post signs similar to those required under California law, Prop 65. Since October 2005, Safeway supermarkets have begun to post outside of California.

Albertson’s and Wal-Mart responded publicly telling reporters that they would also post warnings in all stores, but initial surveys by GotMercury.Org show their new policy has not been fully instated. GotMercury.Org is conducting mercury warning sign surveys of supermarkets across the country. GotMercury.Org and coalition partners continue to ask all supermarkets to post warnings until the FDA requires. Wild Oats, a natural food supermarket chain, took a leadership role when it voluntarily began posting signs in 2003.

“Point of sale warnings should be posted in restaurants and supermarkets as an important tool to reach consumers directly about the FDA and EPA mercury advisory,” stated Eli Saddler, public health specialist and attorney at GotMercury.Org. Saddler continued, “Additionally, it is the responsibility of the FDA to initiate a large-scale program of mercury testing and to remove fish that exceed the 1-ppm standard.”

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.

GotMercury.Org with other public health and environmental groups recently requested that the FDA require point of sale warnings on a national level. GotMercury.Org, Consumers Union, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Oceana, the Mercury Policy Project, and Clean Water Action asked FDA head, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, to urge all states to adopt a point-of-purchase advisory on seafood containing mercury.

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 between 30 and 50 percent of women are not aware of the risks. Mercury in seafood is a significant public health hazard because nearly all fish are contaminated with mercury. Large and long-lived fish contain higher levels of 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, higher than other populations.

Methylmercury—the organic form of mercury found in some 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, cardiovascular disease, and other birth defects. Human mercury comes almost entirely from the consumption of mercury-contaminated seafood.

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. Another study of swordfish in the US found that about half exceeded the 1-ppm safety levels set by the FDA. Therefore, the risk from exposure to mercury in seafood, such as tuna and swordfish, is more serious than even the government reports as confirmed by a recent Chicago Tribune testing of mercury in seafood.

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.

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/press or www.gotmercury.org/info
4. Mercury in Seafood Calculator in Spanish: www.gotmercury.org/espanol
5. Interviews with mercury poisoned women and children available: www.gotmercury.org/Ffaces.html
6. FDA and EPA Consumer Advisory on Methylmercury in Fish: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html
7. GotMercury.Org calculator launched press release: www.seaturtles.org/press_release2.cfm?pressID=200
8. GotMercury.Org Safeway June 2005 Ad: www.seaturtles.org/press_release2.cfm?pressID=264
9. GotMercury.Org and Oceana New York Times Ad, September 2005: www.seaturtles.org/img/original/GotMercury.Oceana.Ad.jpg