Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Someone Should Remind the EPA That Whales Aren’t Fish

While we generally support the right of consumers to eat whatever they please (especially without a side of activist-induced scaremongering and hype), we’re making an exception today. In a press release yesterday from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, scientists announced that whale meat consumption is so contaminated with pollutants that eating it can be dangerous (emphasis added):

Through natural occurrences, like rivers flowing into the ocean, poisons like mercury and PCBs, which are produced by humans, will end up in the ocean. The whales are at the end of the food chain and they end up taking in these poisons through food….Whale meat is 100 times more contaminated than fish and shows an average of 2 ppm of mercury and PCBs (fish only 0.02 ppm).

“So what?” you may ask. Whale meat isn’t usually on the menu in the U.S. Unless you’re day-tripping to Japan or Norway for a Moby Dick sandwich, it’s not worth mentioning. Right?

Not so fast.

We’ve been saying for years that the federal government’s mercury advisories for fish consumption are actually based on research focusing on consumers of whale meat—which (a) has far more mercury than fish, and (b) contains so many other contaminants that it’s impossible to gauge the impact of mercury alone by observing people who eat it. (Overall, whale meat is 100 times as contaminated as fish.)

Yet this is just what the government has done. Despite all the other chemicals in whale meat that confound their research, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency justifies its seafood advisory with a single study of whale-meat eaters. The bottom line is that federal government’s seafood advisory, as National Institutes of Health scientist Dr. Joseph Hibbeln puts it (he’s an expert on fish consumption and health), are “causing the harm they intended to prevent.” We have a national deficit of nutrient-dense “brain food,” and it’s likely harming us and our children.

Despite the well-known health benefits of fish for both adults and developing fetuses, the federal government recommends low limits on eating fish, especially for kids and pregnant women. (Click here to gauge some of those health benefits for yourself.) To construct its advisory, the EPA determined the lowest safe average blood level of mercury and then divided this figure by 10 as an additional safety buffer. The result, the official “Reference Dose,” is ridiculously low—and discourages countless Americans (especially pregnant women) from taking advantage of the health benefits of fish.

In order to determine the lowest “safe” mercury level that the human body can tolerate, the EPA relied on a single scientific study of people living in the Faroe Islands (in the North Atlantic Ocean). These people—the same population warned by today’s press release—are exposed to mercury because they consume lots of pilot whales. But the same food also exposes them to PCBs, dioxins, furans, rocket fuel, and a veritable cocktail of other chemicals.

The bad news is that the EPA keeps clinging to this flawed research. The good news is that there’s a better mousetrap out there. A multi-year study conducted in the Seychelles Islands (in the Indian Ocean) has been unable to measure any real negative health effects from heavy fish consumption. Mercury levels measured in the island natives are higher than those in the United States. But they suffer no ill effects from mercury, and they receive a significant health benefit from making fish a large part of their diet.

Here’s the bottom line for Americans (that is, those of us who don’t eat whale meat): In 2004 the lead researcher in the Faoroes acknowledged in the Boston Herald that  “fish consumption does not harm Faroese children … the fish consumption most likely is beneficial to their health.” Tell that to the EPA. And to the FDA, which appears to be dragging its heels instead of updating its overall “risk assessment” model for seafood.

Ultimately, the EPA’s mercury “Reference Dose” may be too low. If so, we can all be safely eating much more fish. In fact, that would dramatically improve Americans’ overall health. The NIH’s Dr. Hibbeln told New Scientist in 2007 that children only “do their best” developmentally when pregnant women eat more than the government-recommended amount of seafood.

How much fish is right for you? Our seafood calculator can help you decide.

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