The Science-Based Health Advice Environmental Activists Don’t Want You To Hear

Threat of Mercury: Spreading the Mercury Myth


Quacks, hucksters, and snake-oil salesmen peddling junk science and miracle cures have been around at least as long as the traveling medicine shows of the Old West. But whereas the flimflam men of the pre-digital world could deceive only as far as the sound of their voice would carry, a new generation of shamans and gurus are exploiting mass media, internet virality, and social networks to mislead ever greater swaths of the public in the course of lining their own pockets.


Often, the humbug they hock is relatively harmless—many fad diets, for instance, are unlikely to actually hurt people who try them, whether or not they bring any real or lasting benefit. But the constellation of myths and mistruths surrounding seafood is unique in this area, and public health is already suffering in a very real way from the propagation of false and harmful claims about mercury.


Why You Should Eat More Seafood


Virtually every major health organization in the United States wants you to eat more seafood as part of a healthy diet. In “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” the federal government recommends that everyone should increase their consumption of seafood, and that pregnant women in particular should eat at least 2 to 3 servings each week. That’s because seafood provides nutrients that benefit cardiovascular health: A Harvard study showed that some 84,000 cardiac-related deaths could be prevented each year with proper servings of fish in the diet. Another long-term study showed that children whose mothers ate three to four servings of fish a week had IQ scores that were 2.8 percent higher than those whose mothers ate less fish.


Surprised? Studies Show Alarmist Information Scares Consumers Away from Healthy Options


If this information surprises you—if you are surprised to learn that eating seafood not only won’t harm you, but that it is essential for better health—it is precisely because of the dangerous and irresponsible behavior of environmental activists who have taken advantage of a media environment where the loudest, most ridiculous claims get the greatest attention with the least scrutiny. According to the National Academy of Sciences, distorted and alarmist information being trumpeted by eco-activist groups is leading to reduced consumption of the very kinds of food you should be eating.


Exploiting the Mercury Myth at the Cost of Public Health


These groups are able to worm their way into publications by exaggerating the potential for harm and then offering “solutions” that are anything but. In a recent “Food Poisoning News” article, for example, NRDC hypes the threat of mercury in fish, when in fact there are only a small number of species of fish that pregnant women should stay away from because of higher mercury levels. They include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, marlin and orange roughy. Most people rarely or never eat these kinds of fish anyway, so the advice NRDC offers serves only to discourage people from eating fish at all. Not surprising for an organization whose website markets a “safety zone” calculator that says certain fish can cause brain damage.


Organizations that use this kind of hyperbole refuse to look at the data and face the reality that the benefits outweigh any potential harm. It is a dangerous game to downplay the health benefits of eating fish. Americans don’t wind up in the hospital because they consumed fish with miniscule trace amounts of mercury that have always been present because of geo-thermal activity or other simple, scientific reasons. There’s not even a single case of mercury poisoning from normal commercial seafood consumption in any U.S. medical journal. But they certainly are healthier the more fish they consume.


Who Got It Wrong:


That won’t dissuade these groups from continuing to champion their message, especially as news outlets are keen to pick it up. Over the last year alone, we’ve seen Care2,  Glamour, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, and Woman’s Day run with stories highlighting the threat of mercury in fish, playing up a threat that is already small, while entirely ignoring the importance of eating seafood. This leads to confusion among readers about what they should be doing, to the detriment of their health.


Activist groups that champion this message don’t care about sound science or you and your health. They care about fundraising and their own survival. Ignore the noise. Help your health. Eat more seafood.


Learn more about fish and mercury on our blog.