Filed Under: Seafood

People’s Republic of Mercury: China, Part Four

The Ninth International Conference on Mercury as a Global pollutant has officially “wrapped,” and the 540 scientists in attendance have all gone back to their home countries—but not before leaving us a little present. This week we surveyed the mercury experts gathered in Guiyang, China about seafood safety, and their answers were nothing short of a culture shock. As we’re telling the news media today, a large majority of mercury scientists agreed that the health benefits of eating fish outweigh the hypothetical health risks. They’re also in agreement with ten other statements, including the central message of our Tuna Meltdown report—that mercury warnings in grocery stores put poor consumers at an unfair disadvantage.

Here’s a list of the eleven statements with which we asked scientists to “agree” or “disagree.” Large majorities agreed with all eleven.

Evidence suggests that normal consumption of ocean fish does not introduce novel health risks to adults, children, or developing fetuses.

Evidence suggests that the well documented health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients outweigh health risks from methylmercury exposure.

Most of the methylmercury in marine (ocean) fish originates with natural processes, and is not the direct result of human activity.

Warnings about mercury in fish at the point-of-purchase put poor consumers at a disadvantage, since they are less able to appreciate carefully nuanced public health messages about which fish to eat, and whether or not an advisory applies to them.

It would be a good public health outcome if governments urged consumers to eat more fish in general, rather than focusing on the promotion of some fish species over others.

There is growing evidence that selenium in the diet may protect fish consumers from methylmercury’s neurological and developmental effects.

In recent decades, there has not been an increase in methylmercury levels measured in ocean fish tissue, although levels of man-made mercury in the environment have increased.

Consumers who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage may lack adequate access to health care, creating an information gap about the health benefits of eating fish on a regular basis.

Mercury campaigns and government warnings have the unintended consequence of reducing seafood consumption among socioeconomically disadvantaged people. This is a bad public-health outcome.

Point-of-sale signs about mercury in fish targeting pregnant women also discourage fish-eating among consumers for whom consumption advice is unnecessary.

Generally encouraging consumers to eat a variety of fish is the best way to mitigate concern about mercury and still ensure that they get the health benefits of fish consumption.

After the last conference like this one was held in Madison, Wisconsin (in 2006), organizers issued a “Madison Declaration” saying that scientists agreed mercury in fish was harmful and toxic to basically everyone. We noted at the time how obsolete and wrong-headed that thinking appeared to be, and it seems the scientific community has at long last caught up.

For a re-cap on the week’s events in Guiyang, click here, here, and here. Or revisit the blow-by-blow details on our Twitter feed.

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