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News ::
Sorry Charlie, Mercury levels rising (english)
01 Oct 2003
Modified: 02 Oct 2003
Based on EPA's standards for Mercury, a four-year-old child is at risk by eating more than one sandwich a week with chunk light tuna--while a pregnant puts her unborn child at risk by eating a half can of tuna per day.
Mercury rising
Sam Trapani, TownOnline, October 1, 2003

Hold the mayo.

At the same time parents across the tri- town are packing tuna fish sandwiches in their child's lunch believing they are providing a healthy lunch choice, the state has revised and heightened its warning for tuna consumption.

New information and studies about unsafe levels of mercury in certain fish has made this issue float to the top once again. Local obstetricians and pediatricians are heeding the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's advisory which warns pregnant women, women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and children under 12 years of age to refrain from eating large marine fish like shark, swordfish, mackerel, tilefish and tuna steak. The revised warning also includes canned tuna which was previously exempt. The Environmental Protection Agency's most recent mercury warning also includes the recommendation that canned tuna be limited to two cans per week for adults in the high-risk categories and no more than one tuna sandwich per week for a young child. Mercury is of particular concern to the developing nervous system of a fetus and young children.

Food for Thought

Lisa Fletcher of Boxford, herself a nurse, was surprised when she took her four year old twins Dakota and Cassidy to their yearly check ups and was told by their pediatrician about canned tuna being included in the warning. "I had heard about the warning when I was pregnant," said Fletcher. "But I was very surprised when the doctor told us about the dangers for young children as well because of the mercury content. It's not something that you hear about."

Fletcher's pediatrician Dr. David Danis with North Shore Pediatrics at Beverly Hospital clarified his recommendation. "The newest advisory from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health does strongly say that children under the age of twelve should not have more than a few ounces a week," said Danis. " If you have to eat canned tuna a better choice would be to eat light tuna rather than white or chunk white tuna. The latter of which has higher levels of mercury."

Danis admits that the tuna issue is one that surprises most parents. "It is a topic that I guess I have to add to my regular spiel when we have yearly checkups. Along with baby proofing the house, keeping medicines out of reach, etc. we need to start educating about limiting tuna intake. It's just a lot for parents to take in, but it is important."

Susan Bodwell, Director of food services for the Boxford and Topsfield elementary schools said that she had also started to hear warnings about the dangers of tuna for young children. "I had heard about the possible high mercury content in even canned tuna," said Bodwell. "We will bring up the topic at an upcoming meeting to discuss how it affects the schools and what we should possibly do about it. Right now we still serve it on our menus. But it would be interesting to find out more about it."

Something Fishy...

Many people who fall into the high-risk category have not even heard about the warnings issued by state and national government offices. The tuna industry stated that warning women and children about the risks of mercury exposure in canned fish could lead to more than a 20 percent drop in sales. (Reuters 9/6/2003) But various groups such as the Mercury Policy Project said, "Sorry Charlie" to the fish industry noting that people needed to know the dangers. Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project conducted an independent test on canned tuna. Cans of Star-Kist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea tuna and other brands were collected from supermarkets across the country and sent to New Age/Landmark Laboratory in Michigan. The National Food Laboratory in California retested twenty percent of the white tuna samples. On average, six percent of the white albacore tuna samples proved to have levels of mercury over four times higher than the cans of light tuna tested. Bender told the AP (6/2003), "Our tests confirm what the Food and Drug Administration has known for over a decade. Yet the FDA halted tests on canned tuna for mercury in 1998 to save money and because the industry keeps its results secret while parents unknowingly expose their children to mercury."

Another independent test wanting to determine the potential risk for consumers analyzed 27 samples of major brands of tuna, fish sticks and shrimp from grocery stores in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington. Every sample contained mercury and tuna had the most with an average of 0.167 parts per million. Based on the EPA's standards, that means a four-year-old child is at risk by eating more than one sandwich each week made of chunk light tuna. A pregnant woman who eats a half can of tuna each day would also expose her unborn baby to an unsafe dose. (Reuters 9/2003)

The FDA did strengthen their warnings but have not yet put it on the labels of canned tuna where consumers could read about it. In the meantime governors and state officials have released their own warning of mercury contamination in fish. The number of advisories has more than doubled in the last decade as mercury contamination continues to rise. Forty-seven states have issued mercury warnings.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a natural element and can be found at low levels almost everywhere. However, human activities such as coal powered utility plants and trash disposal have significantly increased mercury levels in the environment. Once released in the air it can travel long distances and be deposited on soil and in water bodies. In lakes, ponds and the ocean, mercury can be transformed by natural processes into a more toxic form called methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is absorbed by small organisms that are then eaten by fish. The mercury becomes concentrated in the fish. The larger, older fish concentrate the most chemicals. Large fish such as tuna, swordfish and shark can have concentrations of mercury in their fatty tissues a million times higher than the concentrations found in water.

Why is mercury dangerous?

Mercury is poisonous to the nervous system, kidneys, liver and immune system. The form of mercury found is fish is methyl mercury. It can damage the brain even at low levels of exposure. The developing brains and nervous systems of children are very sensitive to mercury and may be irreversibly damaged by it. Children can be exposed to mercury in the womb if their mothers eat foods contaminated with this toxin. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 60,000 children may be born each year in the United States with neurological problems due to exposure to mercury in the womb. The effects caused by this exposure may be permanent and could lead to poor school performance and health problems. (Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and Department of Environmental Protection.)

What can be done about it?

Parents can follow the state and national fish advisories. Dr. Danis suggests consuming safer choices of fish that do not have high mercury content such as haddock, flounder and cod as well as farmed salmon. "Fish is a great source of protein and is low and fat," said Danis. "So we don't want people to stop eating it. Just select the right fish."

The high mercury levels in fish from lakes, ponds and oceans across the region prompted the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers to adopt a regional mercury action plan in June 1998. This plan has spurred many aggressive actions to reduce mercury pollution in the region. Massachusetts has already lowered mercury emissions in the state by more than 50%. But because mercury persists for so long it will be many years before mercury levels in our fish decrease significantly. It is important for people to be aware of and follow fish consumption advisories.

For further information about mercury warnings, call 1-866-9MERCURY
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or (english)
02 Oct 2003
or...don't kill, buy , consume or eat fish.