Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

People’s Republic of Mercury: China, Part One

Three years ago we brought you reports from inside the Eighth International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant, held in Madison, Wisconsin. (Click herehere, here, and here to relive the activist pageantry.) This week, that event’s successor—the Ninth ICMGP—is being held in Guiyang, China. We’re attending this time too, again keeping an eye on the scare-first-ask-questions-later crowd. Seafood, after all, is still a health food. And unfortunately, hollow bluster about tiny traces of mercury has been known to seep into conventional wisdom, even from a dozen time zones away. So we’re keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.
Day One set the tone for the event, and one particular bit of irony stands out. Compared to the 2006 Wisconsin conference, the agenda in China appears more objective, and less controlled by irresponsible anti-seafood activists (like those at Oceana and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project). Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the location. Or maybe the tide is finally turning in the direction of common sense.
The Chinese conference organizers clearly understand that the use—and misuse—of mercury in traditional medicines, calligraphy inks, and magic elixirs is a part of their cultural history. And according to Dr. Guibin Jiang (who spoke this morning), Chinese industry puts 595 tons of mercury into the atmosphere every year. That’s about four times what the U.S. emits, and Jiang counsels that it’s a conservative estimate.
In this context, the tiny traces of mercury in commercial U.S. seafood (which have always been there) don’t seem like as big a deal as they did a few years back in Wisconsin. We showed back then how the Madison conference was mostly an overreaction to a non-problem, and, so far, its Chinese successor is proving us right.
Here’s a few examples of what we’re talking about:

A Brazilian research team reported that hair-mercury levels in 82 mothers and their babies “were not correlated with children’s weight or height” during the kids’ first five years of life.
A Venezuelan study of 160 adults revealed “no significant relationship” between “Hg-H [hair mercury] levels and clinical symptoms.”
A group of scientists from Slovenia measured the mercury levels in “52 fresh and 76 canned fish samples” and calculated how much mercury the average Slovenian woman was getting from her diet. Those levels, they concluded, “do not represent a health risk.”  They added that “fish are an important source of selenium and n-3 fatty acid.”

The week has just begun, but we have yet to see any sign in the conference program that new evidence of real-life health harms will emerge from eating fish. For American consumers, that leaves us with the old evidence, which is to say none to speak of. (Take heart, food-scare activists: We’ll do this all again two years from now in Nova Scotia when the next ICMGP convenes.)
In addition to daily updates in this space all week long, you can follow our blow-by-blow coverage on Twitter.

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