Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mercury and fish

The New York Times reported yesterday that tuna served in Manhattan restaurants as sushi contained unacceptably high levels of mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and motor impairments. And, mercury bioaccumulates. That means that top level predator fish like tuna (and salmon and swordfish) are likely to contain high levels of the stuff. Folks who eat lots of fish are likely to have high mercury levels.

Although the NYT report is alarming, it really ought not be a surprise. Humans pump thousands of tons of mercury into the air every year, what do we expect to happen? But it does pose something of a dilemma for the public. On the one hand, we are repeatedly advised of the health benefits of eating fish. On the other, EPA warns pregnant women to limit their consumption of certain fish, including tuna, because high levels of mercury contamination pose risks of irreversible harm to the developing fetus. Consumer advocates have been unsuccessful in their attempts to require warning labels about mercury contamination in tuna fish.

As of 2006, 48 states, 1 territory and 2 tribes have issued warnings about mercury contamination of fish in rivers, lakes or coastal waters. In total, almost four thousand fish consumption advisories have been issued nationwide-- covering 38% of the Nation's total lake acreage, 26% of the nation's total river miles. The number of advisories, though startling, does not convey the full scale of the problem. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia reported that 100% of their lake acres and river miles were under advisory for one or more contaminants!!

As a result of this widespread contamination, people are at risk. A 2003 CDC study found that one in 12 American women of childbearing age had blood mercury above the levels EPA considers safe. That puts hundreds of thousands of newborns at risk for neurological damage each year.
You can calculate your personal mercury exposure here.

All the more reason to oppose mercury emissions trading and to intensify the search for alternatives to fossil fuels!!


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