Health News Digest

March 20, 2006

The Incredible Sushi Mercury MonsterDangerous fish!

By  Michael D. Shaw

If there is a recurring theme in these columns, it is one of context:  Dangerous chemicals surely exist, but even many of these can be benign, when viewed within the overall circumstances of life or individual behavior. The problem is that there are those who would ignore the context. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the doom profiteers are at again. Their new campaign, which the Los Angeles Times apparently supports, involves meaningless complaints about supposedly high levels of mercury in fish, most recently uncovered in local sushi bars.

Leaving aside the other risks of eating raw fish, this report defies common sense and ignores science, especially all the accumulated knowledge about the relationship between mercury poisoning and a semi-regular diet of fish. Translation:  There are no deaths caused by moderate consumption of fish that, among a few isolated cases, contained mercury levels at or slightly above the limits designated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Alas, the war against logic and medical evidence continues unabated.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows little restraint in its use of inflated statistics regarding a false dynamic between eating fish and developing, say, cancer or various neurological disorders. In fact, the numbers used by the EPA are so fraught with overkill that, notwithstanding some glutton with an uncontrollable appetite for fish, there is no conceivable way one would die from having consumed sushi or cooked seafood that contained trace amounts of mercury.

The worst effects of mercury exposure occur in utero, so it is prudent to monitor the levels in pregnant women. According to Sandy Szwarc, a registered nurse and food editor…

“The EPA’s safety cushion is the most restrictive in the world, and most other scientific agencies here and around the world examining the same evidence have established minimum exposure levels multiple times higher. To arrive at their levels, the EPA took a level where there was no observed effect at all in the most sensitive of the population with a lifetime of exposure

and [they still] added another ten-fold safety cushion to that.”

More to the point, the average concentration of mercury associated with fish consumption in the United States is, according to a recent study, 0.12 parts-per-million (ppm). This amount is not a danger to a child’s nervous system, despite the warnings and political statements of opponents who seemingly want to ban the consumption of fish.

Now, consider this finding from the National Academy of Sciences, which examined 711 children in the Seychelles Islands, an area with significant occurrences of so-called mercury poisoning:  “No adverse effects were seen that could be attributed to mercury. Maternal hair samples collected at birth contained mercury concentrations that ranged from 0.5 to 27 ppm.”

Bear in mind that the children studied, and their mothers, were exposed to levels far beyond anything typically found in American restaurants, even at facilities previously cited for having sold fish with amounts of mercury at or near the EPA’s or FDA’s limits.

Thankfully, some scientists understand that, as the famous adage reminds us—The dose makes the poison. Take, for instance, Harvard University’s Dr. Joshua Cohen, whose research team concluded in October that government warnings about mercury in fish may do more harm than good. Cohen notes that the hypothetical health risks from mercury in fish would take a lifetime to accumulate:

“To even suggest that going to a restaurant is tantamount to playing Russian roulette, that’s just not true. Saying that a single fish can be a serious problem is like saying that eating three slices of pie at Thanksgiving will, by itself, lead to obesity. If people ate more fish, then the number of heart attacks and strokes would decrease.”

You would think that the public would eventually tire of these puerile scare tactics, but, evidently, bad news always sells. The simple truth is that mercury poisoning does not threaten to tear the American diet asunder, forcing people to abandon fish en masse.

Better to concern ourselves with the bad medicine of overzealous bureaucrats and fear-mongering journalists.