A Closer Look at The Mercury Menace (Part II)

Still no word from the Chicago Tribune on our multiple requests for a review of Michael Hawthorne’s latest story about mercury in seafood, so let’s continue to look at some of his previous work.

Back in 2005 Hawthorne published his “Tribune Investigation” titled “The Mercury Menace” and as we’ve mentioned before, despite its age, the story is still prominently available online and hyper linked to much of the work he does today.

The second installment in his multi-part series ran under the title “U.S. Safety Net in Tatters.”

In this tome he begins by concluding that, “Year after year, the federal government has failed to fully disclose the hazards of mercury in fish to the public.” And goes on to explain that, “Although regulators have issued numerous warnings for fish caught recreationally, they have rarely done so for seafood sold in supermarkets, where most people buy their fish.”

What he fails to explain is why they have “rarely” done so for seafood sold in supermarkets. The fact of the matter is that commercial fish and recreationally caught fish are exposed to different levels of mercury. Fish from small, local lakes and streams have a far greater probability of being exposed to pollutants than ocean-caught fish. As part of the judge’s decision in a California lawsuit (Case Nos. CGC-01402975 and CGC-04-432394 San Francisco Superior Courts) involving warning signs and mercury, an exhaustive review concluded that, “There is no dispute that most of the methylmercury in the ocean exists completely independently of human activity” (p60.) So, while commercial seafood does in fact contain traces of mercury, most of it is naturally occurring and (unlike the levels found in areas where recreational fish are caught) the levels have been fairly static since the beginning of time. Therefore, it stands to reason that regulators would issue various warnings for fish caught recreationally as the potential levels of mercury they are exposed to change.

Later it is noted that, “The U.S. government’s only guide for consumers–a mercury warning posted on federal Web sites but not required in stores–is so flawed and misleading that people following the advice still could expose themselves to too much of the toxic metal.” There is an issue with this sentence that is not fully explained until 11 paragraphs later in the story: The U.S. government’s advisory concerning mercury in seafood is not one that is meant for general “consumers.” It is not a warning designed to reach just any “people.” It is targeted at a sensitive subpopulation made up of women who are pregnant or might become pregnant, nursing moms and small children. This is not a government warning for consumers broadly but very specific targeted public health advice-advice that incidentally does not include the word warning anywhere.

When discussing the FDA’s allowable mercury in fish levels Hawthorne notes, “That limit remains one of the weakest in the Western world. For example, fish sold in America is allowed to have twice as much mercury as seafood sold in Canada.” But as a blanket statement, that’s not quite true. If you consult Health Canada, their version of the FDA, you will find they tell consumers, “Fish are an excellent source of high-quality protein, and are low in saturated fat, which makes them a healthy food choice.” And they explain their allowable mercury in fish levels this way, “Certain fish species sold in Canada, namely, shark, swordfish, and fresh and frozen tuna, contain mercury at levels that are known to exceed the 0.5 ppm guideline. Mercury levels for these species generally remain between 0.5 and 1.5 ppm, allowing for occasional consumption. Therefore, these species are exempted from the 0.5 ppm guideline.” So, in fact- with their recognition of levels at 1.5ppm for certain species- in some cases, the U.S. standard is actually more stringent than the Canadian.

While reviewing the FDA’s actions, as they relate to the allowable mercury in fish levels, Hawthorne writes that in 1970, “testing led the FDA to order more than 12 million cans of tuna off store shelves.” But, as is becoming a trend, he doesn’t explain the whole story. A chemist in upstate New York began the scare he is referring to when he tested canned tuna from his own pantry and reported his findings to a local newspaper. He found levels of 0.75 ppm when the limit at that time was 0.50 ppm. Eventually, the FDA recalled almost a million cans, estimating they would find 23% exceeded the limit. FDA found far fewer than 23% exceeded the limit. But the fact is the case has little if any relevance today because the current standard is 1.0 ppm.

Hawthorne examines the FDA’s court battles with respect to the allowable mercury in fish levels as well by reporting on the case that raised the limit from 0.5 ppm to 1.0 ppm. Hawthorne writes that the judge in that case ruled that the fish in question were, “indeed contaminated by man-made pollution.” But as discussed earlier, a 2006 court case ruled in favor of the latest science that shows that while ocean fish contain traces of mercury, it occurs naturally in the ocean and not as part of the industrial pollution we see effecting recreational fish.

In a further discussion of testing, Hawthorne writes of the FDA that, “The agency also conducted little basic research, such as studies to determine which fish have the most mercury or whether there were high-mercury “hot spots” in the oceans that fishing boats should avoid.” For starters, the FDA has a publicly available Web site that publishes its basic research into which fish have the most mercury. It was established in May of 2001 and updated in February of 2006. As to the suggestion that the FDA should be determining whether there are high-mercury “hot spots” in the oceans that fishing boats should avoid, perhaps we should consult the agency’s mission statement, where we will find no reference to directives that suggest the FDA should be conducting scientific research in the open ocean. What’s more, the suggestion that high-mercury hot spots exist was also addressed in the 2006 California case. The judge writes that, “There was no evidence presented at trial that levels of methylmercury in tuna vary depending on location, season or diet.”

As an example of how the federal advisory is “deeply flawed,” Hawthorne writes, “while it advised people to limit consumption of canned albacore tuna, it did not warn about other fish that, according to the government’s own data, contained even more mercury, such as grouper, orange roughy and marlin.” There is a simple explanation for this. Grouper, orange roughy and marlin are not consumed at anywhere close to the volume albacore tuna is, so there is no reason to advise about them. In a January 18, 2006 letter the FDA wrote, “there is no question that likelihood of experiencing an adverse effect from mythlmercury depends on the extent of consumption over time. Canned tuna has become a subject of special interest primarily due to the volume consumed. Otherwise, the levels of methylmercury in canned tuna would not be particularly noteworthy when compared to other commercial species.” So, Hawthorne is using a fish as a measuring stick that the FDA says is not “particularly noteworthy when compared to other commercial species.”

The final line in this installment suggests that the FDA’s attempts at targeted education through pamphlets are inadequate; “The central feature of the pamphlets: the same government warning that fails to adequately protect consumers.” For a final time we see the incorrect homogenization of the federal advisory and its audience. The target of the advisory is simply not “consumers” broadly. It is a very specific sensitive sub population and to suggest or imply otherwise is inaccurate.

We’ll check in with the Tribune for a status report and have more for you then.