Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Public Radio Clash Of The Tuna Titans

National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” tackled the mercury-in-fish issue last week with a debate pitting hard science against environmental journalism. The University of Rochester’s Dr. Gary Myers (the leader of a 20-year-long scientific study of mercury in the Seychelles Islands) squared off against Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne, whose recent series of articles on mercury in fish set a new standard for careless food writing. Hawthorne complained that “science tends to be kind of noisy.” Dr. Myers responded by sharing his observations about the latest and most impressive science on the subject to date. Far from being noisy, it reads like a guided tour through our FishScam website. (To listen to the complete interview, click here.)On the inhabitants of the Seychelles Islands: “They were eating a lot of fish and their mercury levels were higher than what is here in the United States … we have been following this cohort of over 700 children for the past 15 years. And actually, we’re just in the process of evaluating these children again. We’ve examined them on six occasions previously with extensive batteries of neurological, psychological, behavioral, and other kinds of tests. We’ve tried to use almost every test that’s been used in any other study of mercury, or other toxins, actually … we know exactly what their prenatal exposure was to mercury, how much they got.”
On the impact of all that mercury: “We’ve found no consistent evidence of any adverse effects from mercury exposure from fish consumption at the levels that are taking place in Seychelles.”
On the differences between the Seychelles study and similar research conducted in the Faroe Islands: “In the Seychelles, the women eat fish. In the Faroes, women eat fish, and they also eat whale meat. And whale meat actually has quite high levels of mercury and it’s eaten episodically so that periodically one gets a bolus, if you will, of mercury from consuming whale meat. And whale also has another difference from just straight fish in that there are multiple other contaminants that are present in whales. PCBs being the most common one, but in addition there’s cadmium and dioxins and a variety of other things.”
On the soundness of the Environmental Protection Agency’s hyper-precautionary Reference Dose (RfD) for mercury: “The EPA’s reference dose is, of course, the lowest reference dose of any governmental agency around.”
On the lack of actual cases of mercury poisoning in the United States: “There have been fewer than a hundred poisoning episodes that have taken place anywhere in the world. And the majority of those have been from the consumption of grain. It used to be common around the world to treat seed grain. The farmers would treat seed grain with methyl mercury, and occasionally people would eat it … The only case of methyl mercury poisoning that’s ever occurred in the United States, or been reported in the medical literature at least, occurred in that manner, eating seed grain … When one looks for cases of children, for instance, who’ve had learning disorders or other things related to mercury, it’s impossible to find them in the literature. There are no proven cases of that.”
On the bottom line: “I think we need to be careful that whatever we do is best for the children’s health. And at the moment, you know, the things that have been shown clearly, scientifically, to be beneficial to children’s health are omega-3 fatty acids. And the risk of the toxicity is a theoretical risk, still, at this point in time.”

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