San Francisco, CA – The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance requiring Prop 65 warnings in English, Spanish, and Chinese on November 1, 2005. The ordinance was returned from Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office not vetoed and is now law in San Francisco. The first of its kind in the country, the ordinance will require grocery stores and restaurants to post mercury in seafood warning signs in English, Spanish, and Chinese in the city and county of San Francisco. Additionally, the San Francisco Department of Public Health will enforce the ordinance during routine health inspections. Proposition 65 requires warnings about toxins, such as mercury in fish, that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced the groundbreaking public health ordinance earlier this year. GotMercury.Org worked closely to aid Mirkarimi’s office. Public health and environmental groups support the ordinance as a step toward giving Latina and Chinese mothers the right to know about mercury in seafood. The public health ordinance addresses the environmental justice concern that only English speakers were getting information crucial to protecting women and children. Better enforcement of Prop 65 will also improve public health.
“Supervisor Mirkarimi and the Board of Supervisors should be applauded for extending California’s Prop 65 warning signs to Spanish and Chinese speakers,” said Eli Saddler of GotMercury.org. “San Francisco’s ordinance gives Latina and Chinese mothers an equal right to know so that they can also protect their children from mercury in fish, like swordfish and tuna.”
Mercury in seafood is a significant health hazard. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can harm developing fetuses and young children. Some fish contain more mercury than others so it is important for women to select seafood carefully. According to the EPA, one in six women of childbearing age in the U.S. has unsafe blood levels of mercury — that’s 630,000 children born at risk each year. However, the FDA estimates that only between 30 and 50 percent of women are unaware of the risks.
For San Franciscans, the danger of mercury poisoning by seafood is greater. 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 women had mercury blood levels exceeding the EPA safety limits, higher than other populations.
“San Francisco’s women are at higher risk than other populations and should be educated about which fish to avoid, regardless of whether they speak English, Spanish, or Chinese,” said Eli Saddler, public health specialist for GotMercury.Org. He continued, “San Francisco seafood consumers have the right to know the government’s clear warnings: Women and children should not eat swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel. They should also reduce their tuna consumption.”
GotMercury.Org is an online calculator in both English and Spanish for consumers to estimate their own mercury exposure from eating seafood (http://www.gotercury.org or http://www.gotmercury.org/espanol). Chinese and Japanese calculators will be available on GotMercury.Org soon. To facilitate public health education, GotMercury.Org is translating materials into Spanish and Chinese to educate more consumers about the risks of eating mercury-laden seafood and to support San Francisco’s efforts.
Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island, said, “Many supermarkets and restaurants are still failing to post mercury in fish warnings under Prop 65. However, businesses can develop trust with consumers by providing them accurate information about the risks of eating certain fish, such as swordfish, shark, or tuna.” He added, “Stricter enforcement of mercury in seafood warning sign requirements will ensure more consumers learn about the government’s important public health warnings.”
GotMercury.org and Turtle Island Restoration Network have been monitoring stores in California to determine compliance with Prop 65 requirements. Recent data shows that the majority of stores are not adequately posting mercury warning signs. Statewide, about 70% of supermarkets, including Safeway, and others, were failing to properly notify customers about mercury in fish.
In March 2004, the EPA and FDA issued a joint advisory about mercury in seafood. 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.
Methylmercury — the organic form of mercury found at high levels in some fish — 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 birth defects. Human mercury comes primarily from the consumption of seafood. While seafood can contribute to a healthy diet, consumers must avoid eating fish higher in mercury and have a balanced diet.
A recent study of swordfish in the US found that about half exceeded the FDA’s 1-ppm safety level. 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.
The GotMercury.Org project of Turtle Island Restoration Network, As You Sow Foundation, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility – San Francisco, Community Toolbox for Children’s Environmental Health, the Mercury Policy Project, California League for Environmental Enforcement Now, and other organizations supported the San Francisco ordinance. Hundreds of individuals have emailed the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in support of this ordinance. The San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association also endorsed the law. Representatives of the tuna industry lobbied to stop this ordinance and continue to deny the strong scientific evidence supporting the Prop 65 warnings because tuna sales have dropped by 10 percent, a $150 million loss.
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. 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. In February 2005, Attorney General settled with major restaurant chains, but the lawsuit against grocery stores continues. California’s mercury in seafood warning signs are based on the March 2004 FDA and EPA advisory on methylmercury in fish.
1. Consumers can calculate their mercury exposure from fish at www.gotmercury.org.
3. Electronic Press Kit available: www.gotmercury.org/press
4. Interviews with mercury poisoned women and children available.
5. Mercury in swordfish report at www.seaturtles.org/press_release2.cfm?pressID=227
6. FDA and EPA Consumer Advisory on Methylmercury in Fish at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html.
7. Copy of San Francisco law: downloads/SFprop65law.PDF
Mercury Education & Response Campaign (MERC)
Turtle Island Restoration Network
PO Box 400, Forest Knolls, CA 94933
GotMercury.org is project of the Mercury Education and Response Campaign (MERC) of Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN). TIRN is a California-based marine conservation and public health advocacy organization that works to protect sea turtles and other marine species around the world while protecting communities from mercury in seafood. For more information, visit: www.seaturtles.org. For more information on mercury in seafood and marine species protection, please visit the TIRN website at: http://www.gotmercury.org/info