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Mercury Girl: Part 2 - Fish and Environment

Posted Oct 01 2008 5:05pm

If you haven’t, please read my previous post about Mercury, Mercury Poisoning and Silver Amalgam Fillings here.

Today my research has moved on to fish:

“It started out quite simply, with the strangeness of cats “dancing” in the street–and sometimes collapsing and dying.” That was how The poisoning of Minamata began to manifest in Japan in the early 1950’s. It took 20 more years for this to reach the headlines and lead to a worldwide realization that Mercury could enter the food chain as a waste byproduct and consequently people could get poisoned from fish accumulating that waste.

What is shocking is that despite this knowledge 20 years later (the 1990’s), the FDA practically stopped checking Tuna and fish for mercury altogether. It wasn’t until they started getting pressured about the safety issues in 2000 did they began monitoring it again.

What I didn’t know about mercury is that it is constant:

“Mercury (Hg) is an element that occurs in a fixed amount on earth and can neither be created nor destroyed.” - Oceana

You may ask, if Mercury is a constant in our environment and is never produced or destroyed, why is it such a problem? The answer is Energy.

“The largest emitter of mercury pollution is coal-fired power plants.” - Greenpeace

“On average, three times more mercury is falling from the sky today than before the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago as a result of the increasing use of mercury and industrial emissions.” - Bio-Medicine

As show in the Mercury Cycle below (from Oceana), the power plants release it as a byproduct into the air , contaminating our environment, especially the air where it falls into our oceans, where it is accumulated in fish, and ingested by humans.

So the key is to stop releasing mercury into the environment and use clean green fuel!

Some stats on how all of this is affecting our health and the health of our kids:

“In America one-in-six children born every year have been exposed to mercury levels so high that they are potentially at risk for learning disabilities and motor skill impairment and short-term memory loss. 630,000 children each year are exposed to potentially unsafe mercury levels in the womb.” - PBS

“An EPA scientist estimated that one in six pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose neurological risks to her developing baby. This means that hundreds of thousands of newborns each year in the United States may be exposed to enough mercury to hinder nervous system development.

Perhaps the greatest concern about mercury is its effect on the early development of the fetus and later effects on childhood development. Methylmercury can travel across the placenta from the mother to the fetus, meaning exposure to the dangerous poison often begins in the womb during a baby’s most vulnerable developmental period. Children and fetuses are also harmed by lower concentrations of mercury than it takes to hurt adults.

Mercury can cause irreversible impairment to brain function in children in the womb and as they grow. Infants and children exposed to toxic doses of mercury have problems with attention span, language, visual-spatial skills, memory and coordination. Very high exposure levels in children can lead to brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures, and speech problems. Exposure also appears to weaken the heartbeat and the developing immune system.” - Oceana

“One-fifth of women of childbearing age have mercury levels in their hair that exceed federal health standards, according to interim results of a nationwide survey being conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.” - Washington Post

“A study of Finnish men found an association among the highest third of hair mercury content and an approximately 60% greater prevalence of coronary heart and cardiovascular diseases compared with men with the lower two thirds of hair mercury content.” - MedScape

Why has it become such an epidemic and why is nobody doing anything about it?

The answer to that is one nasty word, Profit. Tuna is big business. Due to huge amounts of pressure from the Tuna industry the FDA has been rather lenient in determining “safe” levels of mercury in fish let alone making the public aware of it because of the risk that they may stop buying it. This has been particularly misleading in regards to canned tuna. Mercury levels in light canned tuna, supposedly safe for children, expecting and nursing mothers, are far higher than reported and in most cases is not safe for frequent consumption.

“Under strong pressure from Big Canned Tuna, the Food and Drug Administration is crazily lax in regulating mercury in tuna. Among many examples: In 2000, a draft advisory to pregnant women listed canned tuna as a product highly contaminated with mercury; after FDA officials met with the three largest tuna companies, the final advisory left tuna off the list. When the FDA’s fish mercury guidelines were revised in 2003, canned light tuna was put in the low-mercury group — mainly, according to an FDA official, “in order to keep the market share at a reasonable level.” The FDA doesn’t require warnings in stores or on tuna cans, issuing advisories mainly through doctor’s-office brochures. However, a recent appeals-court decision could open the door to allowing states to mandate warning labels on tuna — a prospect opposed by both the tuna industry and, sadly, the agency tasked with regulating Americans’ food and drugs.” - Mother Jones

“The FDA has continually resisted conducting public notification stating that doing so could result in a reduction of seafood sales and consumption. They have chosen instead to rely upon the seafood industry to provide contamination warnings through a “nuanced approach”. Discharging their responsibility to the seafood industry has proven ineffective for communicating vital health information to the public at large.” -Got Mercury

“Recent laboratory tests reported last week in The New York Times found so much mercury in some sushi made with tuna, particularly bluefin, that a long-term diet of even two or three pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.” - The NY Times

“Given the popularity of canned tuna fish and its moderate levels of mercury, parents should monitor how much their kids eat.” - EDF / Read here.

Why doesn’t our government do something about this?

“In 2004, a study found that the number of infants that are potentially exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb was 630,000 children in the U.S. annually. This was double the previous estimates and was determined from mercury levels in umbilical cords, which contain mercury levels 1.7 times higher than those of the mother’s blood level. Based upon this data, far more babies are being exposed to the reference dose than previously thought.

The companies were very worried. The tuna foundation had warned the agency in private meetings that including canned tuna in the mercury advisory could cause sales to plummet nearly 25 percent, and that seafood producers ‘would face the distinct possibility of numerous class action lawsuits.’ FDA focus groups also suggested that Tuna consumption would fall. Sure enough, the final advisory - released after President Bush had taken office - didn’t include canned Tuna.” - Mother Jones

“People should not have to stop eating fish because they’re afraid they’ll get poisoned by mercury,” said Greenpeace Energy Campaigner Casey Harrell. “We need a President who will cut mercury pollution and move us away from dirty fossil fuels by investing in clean, renewable energy.”" - Greenpeace

Mercury consumption guidelines vary around the world which causes confusion and here lies the problem as outlined onNOW:

“United States, women are hearing different advice from different sources, especially where tuna is concerned. The EPA’s methylmercury guideline is a recommended limit on mercury consumption based on bodyweight, also known as a “reference dose.” EPA’s methylmercury reference dose is .1 micrograms/kg body weight per day. In July 2000, the National Academy of Sciences found the EPA’s reference dose as “scientifically justifiable” for protecting most Americans. So exactly how much mercury a 45 lb. child would ingest by eating one 6 ounce can of tuna per week, and how does that compare to the EPA’s reference dose? Take a look at the following calculations:

Step 1 - DETERMINE EPA’s RECOMMENDED LEVEL FOR A 45 LB CHILD

  • Multiply child’s body weight by EPA’s reference dose.
  • Convert 45 pounds to kilograms = 20.45 kilograms
  • 20.45 kilograms x .1 micrograms per kilogram per day

EPA RECOMMENDED LEVEL = 2.05 micrograms per day = 14.35 micrograms per week.

Step 2 - HOW MUCH MERCURY IS IN 6 OUNCES OF CHUNK WHITE TUNA?

  • Multiply amount of fish by average mercury level for chunk white albacore.
  • Convert 6 ounces to grams = 170 grams 170 grams X .31 ppm (or micrograms per gram)**

MERCURY INGESTED = 52.7 micrograms per gram

Step 3 – COMPARE MERCURY INGESTED WITH EPA’S RECOMMENDED LEVEL

  • Divide 52.7 micrograms by 14.35 micrograms = 3.7

BY EATING 6 OUNCES OF CHUNK WHITE TUNA A WEEK, THE CHILD IS INGESTING ALMOST FOUR TIMES EPA’S RECOMMENDED DOSE.

I’m off fish at the moment due to my doctors orders because of my high mercury levels. When I do eat it again, the key is not to panic or to stop eating fish altogether but to eat safe fish. Fish with short life spans so they don’t have time to accumulate the heavy metals. I’ve read that it’s best to consider canned salmon as an option instead of tuna. This will be something I will consider.

WHAT ELSE YOU CAN DO? Inform yourself and others:

GET TESTED - Join the Greenpeace Campaign and get tested for $25 and help raise awareness!!

“Washington, DC, United States — We invite mothers, children and families to determine their mercury exposure levels through our do-it-yourself-kits. The results of our Greenpeace National Mercury Testing Project are in and the findings are startling. It’s time to demand protection of our health from mercury pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants and to promote renewable energy for America.

To determine your own mercury level, all it takes is a small amount of hair. Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, we are able to offer this analysis at a fraction of the amount that it would cost at most commercial labs. For $25, you will receive sampling instructions, background documents about mercury and a consent form. Laboratory results will be confidential and will be mailed to you within two to three weeks of the sample.” Order here

I found this to be very helpful in figuring out what is safe for consumption: Mercury Calculator. You can input almost any kind of fish, the serving size and your weight and it will tell you if you exceed the EPA safety range.

I read the common Myths and Facts about Mercury here.

I feel it is important to stay informed: Sign up for General Mercury Policy email updates.

For help picking which fish to eat and learning more about which ones are safe I will refer to the Eco-Fish guide here provided by the EDF (environmental defense fund). It will tell you about the fish, how much is safe, and what to watch out for.

There are also companies that test their fish to make sure you are getting mercury free or low mercury fish. There are many companies online.

Here’s a great article from The Times Online (UK) about how to eat sustainable fish.

The Blue Ocean Institute has also made a guide that I think is cool here that you can print out and keep in your wallet or bag.

Oceana also provides a site called The Green List where you can search for a grocery store that is mercury safe.

Oceana has also provided a full report on how to stop Mercury Contamination from fish.

Read the FDA/EPA guidelines on mercury and what you need to know).

Most importantly I will support and use renewable green energy whenever possible.

Doctors need to start looking for the signs of mercury poisoning, testing their patients, and telling their patients of the risks. We as patients also need to start picking our doctors as we would a babysitter. You wouldn’t let just let anyone look after your child would you? Why would you let just any doctor look after your health? Interview doctors. Pick one that is knowledgeable about environmental health factors that are affecting all of us and even more so, our children.

Coming up on Mercury Girl - Part 3: Other sources of mercury, mercury and autism and how I plan to detox.

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