Recent news stories have suggested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering relaxing its fish-consumption advice for vulnerable populations, such as women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children. The stories are based on a leaked internal draft report, which has been posted on the website of the Environmental Working Group. The FDA told us that the reports aren't accurate, and the guidelines won't be changed in the near future.
Currently, the FDA advises these populations to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (all contain high levels of mercury), to eat only 12 ounces (about 2 average meals) a week of lower-mercury fish, and to reduce albacore tuna consumption to 6 ounces a week. Consumers Union believes that the mercury warnings for these populations should actually be strengthened, and that pregnant women should avoid all fish that might contain risky levels of mercury, including canned tuna. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and a Senior Scientist and Policy Analyst at Consumers Union explains what a move relaxing the advisory might mean for consumers.
Q: What would it mean to relax the existing advice on mercury consumption in fish for these populations?
A: It would amount to the FDA turning its back on the most vulnerable populations, including women of childbearing years, fetuses, infants and children, when it should be helping to curb their mercury exposure from high-mercury seafood. According to past estimates out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 6 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age already have mercury concentrations in their blood measuring at or above a level the CDC estimates to be the benchmark for concern.
Q: What are the potential risks associated with eating mercury-containing fish?
A: Mercury toxicity has been linked to neurological, cardiovascular and immune system health effects. There is particular concern for mercury exposure in fetuses, infants and young children, since their neurological and immune systems are still developing. With so many open questions about the causes of neurological disorders and diseases, including autism, cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, limiting exposures to neurotoxins makes good health sense.
Q: What types of fish are most likely to mercury?
A: Trace levels of mercury may be found in most fish, but swordfish, shark, tilefish, king mackerel, and tuna can contain levels that exceed safety limits. Other seafood can contain moderate levels of mercury and consumption of these should be limited. The FDA has a list of mercury levels in fish.
Q: Who should avoid those fish that have the most mercury?
A: Women who are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, or are nursing. And children too.
Q: What about people who don't belong to these populations, such as men, and women past child-bearing age? Should they be worried about mercury in fish as well?
A: Anyone should be concerned about harboring too much mercury. Studies of populations that consume large quantities of fish show that the accumulation of mercury in the body can be a health concern. Moderation and diversification of the types of fish we eat should be adequate.
Q: What are the safest types of fish to eat?
A: Scallops, tilapia, sardines, and wild salmon are all examples of fish that are typically low in mercury . Canned Alaskan Salmon is almost all wild caught and not expensive.
Q: What about people who really love tuna and swordfish; is it possible to eat those fish occasionally and still limit your risk of mercury exposure?
A: Yes. Healthy adults who are not pregnant should not fear eating swordfish or albacore tuna in moderation, but women of childbearing age should avoid these fish.
—Kevin McCarthy, associate editor
For more on mercury in fish, including a guide to eating canned tuna, see our previous report, Mercury in Tuna.