Tuna and the FDA
Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions
By Peter Waldman
[The article begins with the story of a fifth-grader who "wasn't focused in class and often missed assignments ... labored at basic addition ... could barely write a simple sentence." His mother was shocked when "her son abruptly lost interest in homework.... [He] had always excelled in school." In addition, "Her son's fingers were starting to curl, as if he were gripping a melon. And he could no longer catch a football."]
A neurologist ordered tests. They showed blood laced with mercury in amounts nearly double what the Environmental Protection Agency says is the safe level for exposure to the metal. [He] had mercury poisoning, his doctors said.
For a year or so, starting in late 2002, [he] had gobbled three to six ounces a day of white albacore tuna. Based on Food and Drug Administration data for canned albacore, he was consuming a daily dose of mercury at least 12 times what the EPA considered a safe level for a 60-pound child.
One reason she didn't know was that the government had never said so. The FDA had known for many years that canned tuna contained mercury, which studies link to learning impairment in children. Consumer groups long urged the agency to address the issue. But it wasn't until March 2004 ... that those agencies issued a mercury advisory that cited tuna.
But the limits set in the advisory may exceed safe levels for some people, judging by a mercury risk assessment that the EPA produced on its own years earlier.
|The federal advisory said that nursing mothers and women who are pregnant or may become so should eat no more than 12 ounces of chunk light tuna a week. For solid white albacore, which is higher in mercury, it set a six-ounce weekly limit. Young children, it said, should eat "smaller portions." No advice was given for men or older women.|
The maximum mercury ingestion the EPA deems safe is one microgram a day for each 22 pounds of body weight. If a 130-pound woman ate as much albacore tuna as the joint federal advisory allows, she would exceed that safe level by 40%.
If the joint advisory had been available in 2003 and the Davises, following its advice about "smaller portions" for children, had given Matthew just half a can of albacore a week, he still would have consumed 60% more mercury than the EPA can say with confidence is safe.
The struggle to find the right balance on mercury is part of a larger issue: How to deal with dozens of industrial chemicals now known to linger in the environment and the human body in trace amounts.
Mercury emissions, about 40% of which in the U.S. come from coal-fired power plants, settle into oceans, lakes and rivers. Then people take in mercury by eating large fish that have accumulated an organic form of the metal in their flesh by consuming smaller fish.
5.7% of U.S. infants, or 228,000 a year, could be at risk of mercury poisoning during gestation, based on the latest blood survey of women of childbearing age by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ... fetuses concentrate more mercury in their blood than do their pregnant mothers.
|Former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt says the reason the government didn't make the mercury-in-fish advisory tougher was to avoid scaring people away from fish. "Mercury is bad and fish is good. We needed to choose the right words that would give people a sense of knowledge without creating unwarranted fear," says Mr. Leavitt.|
Food companies have long lobbied to mitigate any FDA action on canned tuna, one of the top-grossing supermarket items in revenue per unit of shelf space. Five years ago ... the FDA began preparing to revise a 1979 advisory that said it was all right to consume four micrograms of mercury a day per 22 pounds of body weight -- four times the EPA's maximum.
Food companies urged the FDA not to single out canned tuna. In private meetings with FDA officials in fall 2000, industry and agency documents show, the industry argued that health data were inconclusive, that citing canned tuna would drive down its consumption by 19% to 24%, and that seafood producers "would face the distinct possibility of numerous class action lawsuits."
|When the FDA issued a revised mercury advisory in 2001, it urged women of childbearing age to shun four high-mercury species: swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. It didn't mention tuna. Yet cumulatively, according to data provided by the EPA, the four species it urged avoiding account for less than 10% of Americans' mercury ingestion from fish, while canned tuna accounts for about 34% of it.|
Some EPA scientists griped that FDA officials were coddling food companies. "They really consider the fish industry to be their clients, rather than the U.S. public," charges Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist now working for the state of Maine.
Change of Course
In April 2003 ... following years of prodding by health advocates, some members of Congress and the agency's own outside food advisory panel ... the FDA said it would base future mercury warnings on the EPA's stricter limit.
At the hearing, FDA scientists said they had put fish in three categories: high in mercury, medium and low. The level for the low-mercury group was that of canned light tuna, explained FDA official Clark Carrington. "In order to keep the market share at a reasonable level, we felt like we had to keep light tuna in the low-mercury group," he said, according to the meeting's official transcript.
The FDA's outside advisory panel ... urged a specific warning about the higher-mercury albacore tuna. ... But food processors lobbied the administration. At the White House, they implored officials not to single out albacore. They said doing so would only drive people, especially the poor, to eat more junk food, says a scientist who was there.
In some kinds of fish, mercury content varies widely, exposing diners to random spikes. In chunk light tuna and snapper, some samples had seven times as much mercury as the average for the species, as measured by the FDA. Certain samples of canned albacore tuna showed a spike to 2½ times the average.
The tuna industry has continued to aim some marketing at pregnant women and kids. An ad sponsored by the U.S. Tuna Foundation last year ... reassured "pregnant and nursing women and young children" that canned tuna "is absolutely safe to eat" [and that] "No government study has ever found unsafe levels of mercury in women or young children who eat canned tuna."
By "unsafe levels," says the foundation's Mr. Burney, the ad wasn't referring to mercury above what the EPA declares safe, but to the actual blood-mercury level of Faroe Islands infants. That level is 10 times as high as the EPA's safe level.
Technorati Tags: Folly, Environment, Tuna, Mercury