Mercury Fears Spur New Fish Consumption Guidelines

But U.S. critics say FDA, EPA ignore risks from albacore tuna

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, March 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Balancing neurological risks to youngsters with nutritional benefits, two U.S. government agencies issued new joint guidelines Friday on the consumption of mercury-tainted fish by women and young children.

The new guidelines, issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, advise that pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children avoid eating meat from older, larger fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.

Conspicuously absent from that list, however, is albacore tuna, which activists say may have even higher levels of mercury per serving than other species on the "banned" list.

The latest guidelines now encourage women and young children to eat six ounces -- about one meal's worth -- of albacore tuna per week.

While EPA Assistant Acting Commissioner Benjamin Grumbles called the new rules "an important improvement" over previous guidelines, Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, described them as "a bad day for American moms and their children."

Mercury released into the air via coal-fired generating plants and other pollution sources eventually finds its way into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Once there, bacteria convert the toxin into methylmercury. Methylmercury then makes its way up the aquatic food chain, concentrating in high levels in the flesh of large, relatively long-lived ocean predators such as the fish included on the government's new "avoid' list.

Parents have good reason to fear methylmercury, since even small amounts of the toxin can cause irreparable harm to the developing nervous systems of the fetus and nursing infant.

It marks the first time the two agencies have spoken with a single voice. Previously, the FDA gave advice on eating commercially bought fish, while the EPA distributed information on fish caught recreationally.

The new guidelines, the first issued since 2001, add no new species to the list of fish deemed too dangerous for consumption by women and young children.

However, the new rules now also provide advice on the consumption of fish with low levels of methylmercury. The agencies suggest that women and small children "eat up to 12 ounces -- two average meals -- a week of a variety of shellfish that are lower in methylmercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish." These fish are smaller and have shorter life spans, giving methylmercury much less time to accumulate.

For its part, the EPA has also included guidelines on the consumption of locally caught fish by amateur fishermen. The agency advises that individuals always look up local fish-safety guidelines in their area before consuming their daily catch. "If no advisory is available," the agency advises eating "up to six ounces -- one average meal -- per week of fish you catch from local water, but don't consume any other fish that week."

The joint guidelines also allow for the consumption of six ounces per week of albacore tuna. Albacore tuna differs from standard "light" tuna in that it comes from a larger, older species of fish more likely to accumulate high levels of methylmercury.

Independent studies have suggested that canned albacore tuna has levels of mercury even higher than those found in tilefish, a species long in residence on the avoid list.

In December, Wiles' Environmental Action Group filed a lawsuit against the FDA, claiming that the scientific data used in making its recommendations on albacore tuna was of unacceptable quality.

Wiles believes the recommendations released today continue to put U.S. children at risk.

"Right now we've got about 8 percent of women that have unhealthful levels of mercury in their blood," he said. "If we now say then that 'OK, all the women in America should eat six ounces of albacore tuna a week,' this would make the situation dramatically worse.

"It's a dangerous piece of advice on the part of the agency," Wiles continued. "They've completely disregarded the science on mercury toxicity by recommending that women eat six ounces of albacore tuna a week."

But FDA officials disagree. Speaking at a press conference in Washington, D.C., agency scientist Dr. David Acheson cited FDA studies that put average levels of methylmercury in albacore tuna below the milligram-per-gram threshold deemed unsafe for consumption by women and small children.

"FDA did a lot of testing in 2003 of both canned light tuna and albacore tuna, and those studies showed that average levels for albacore were 0.3 to 0.5 [mg]," he said. "None of the samples we took during that period were above our action level."

As to the independent studies Wiles cited, Acheson saidthat "we've not looked at those data, they weren't done in FDA labs."

The EPA's Grumbles agreed with Acheson. "We feel confident that the fish advice, including the advice on albacore tuna, is based on the best peer-reviewed science," he said.

All parties weighing in on the new guidelines stress that fish is one of the healthiest foods available, a low-fat food rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients, and should remain a part of a healthy diet. Agency officials also stressed that men, teenagers, and women not covered by the guidelines should feel free to eat as much fish as they'd like.

Still, Wiles believes the latest guidelines are another example of "an overall Bush administration effort to cave [in] to the coal industry," since coal-fired power plants remain a major source of airborne mercury.

"They've rolled back pollution standards from what they were proposed to be -- so instead of a 95 percent reduction we get a 30 percent reduction," he said. "And at the other end of the pipe we've basically said that the mercury levels in tuna and other fish are OK -- and they're not OK."

The EPA's Grumbles took issue with that assessment, however. "The proposed [emissions] regulation is not to loosen controls," he said. "In fact, it's the first time we've established controls on mercury emissions. We all recognize that mercury is prevalent throughout the environment and it is a toxin that needs to be controlled."

More information

For a look at the new guidelines, head to the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the Mercury Policy Project aims to cut levels of the heavy metal.

SOURCES: March 19, 2004, news teleconference with David Acheson, M.D., chief medical officer, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Benjamin Grumbles, acting assistant administrator, Office of Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.; Richard Wiles, senior vice president, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.

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