FDA’s Mercurial Fish Story
By Steven Milloy
“FDA says mercury in some fish could harm babies’ brains” blared the Associated Press last week. The FDA warned pregnant women and women of childbearing age about alleged hazards of consuming fish that may contain high levels of mercury.
But facts don’t support the warning. It seems the FDA is being used by the lame-duck Clinton administration to help compel the incoming Bush administration to issue restrictive regulations on mercury emissions from electric power plants.
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and it can be released into the air through industrial emissions. It can get into both fresh and salt water and then accumulate up the food chain.
There is no question mercury can cause toxic effects — just like every substance including water, sugar and salt. It’s a matter of dose, though. The available information does not indicate U.S. fish eaters are in danger.
Harm to the nervous systems’ of unborn children is the primary concern. Two episodes of mass mercury poisoning bear this out. A number of Japanese children living near Minamata Bay in the 1950s were mentally retarded and had other neurological problems following consumption by pregnant mothers of fish contaminated with high levels of methyl mercury.
No one knows exactly how much mercury was consumed by the mothers. But mercury levels in samples of the mothers’ hair averaged 41 parts per million (ppm).
A second episode of mass mercury poisoning occurred in Iraq in the 1970s when seed grain treated with a mercury-containing fungicide was consumed. The effects on the Iraqi children mirrored those reported among the Japanese children. Although maternal hair levels of methyl mercury ranged from 1 to 674 ppm, many children of Iraqi mothers with hair concentrations exceeding 100 ppm had normal development.
Despite the association between mercury and the neurological problems among the Japanese and Iraqi children, these episodes are of little relevance to fish consumption in the U.S.
The average level of mercury in hair associated with seafood consumption in the U.S. is 0.12 ppm, according to a 1997 study. This level of mercury exposure is not associated with harm to children’s nervous systems.
A July 2000 report from the National Academy of Sciences noted, “A 66-month study of 711 children in the Seychelles islands assessed the effects of prenatal... mercury in tests of global intelligence and developmental milestones. No adverse effect 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.” A smaller study of Faroe Islands children reported only "subtle" (invisible?) effects at corresponding exposure levels.
The NAS concluded “the functional importance of the apparent effects is uncertain,” and the studies “provide little evidence” that children are affected appreciably by low-dose prenatal exposure to mercury.
This body of evidence linking low-level mercury exposure with harm to children is so weak that U.S. regulations are based on extrapolation from the Iraqi poisoning data. The Environmental Protection Agency’s current “safe” level of mercury exposure is based on a maternal hair level of about 11 ppm — way above U.S. exposures to mercury from fish consumption.
Even the intake of mercury among women of child-bearing age who consume the most fish is about three times below the level at which risks are thought to begin.
So what’s the FDA alarm all about?
It’s not news the Clinton EPA spent much of the last eight years doing the bidding of extreme environmental activists. With little regard for science, the EPA repeatedly jammed expensive regulation of dubious merit down the public’s throat. But Congress barred the EPA from regulating mercury emissions from electric power plants — until the NAS reported on the matter, which it did in July 2000.
Apparently respecting only the report’s issuance and not its content, the Clinton EPA moved in the eleventh hour to bind the Bush administration into issuing regulations.
The EPA announced in mid-December it would draft and implement regulations to limit mercury releases from power plants starting in 2004. Likely incoming EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman is not expected to reverse course. As New Jersey governor, Whitman helped lead the Northeast states’ attack on air emissions from Midwestern electric power plants.
In announcing the regulatory effort, EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed, “Mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes, and contaminating fish [and] poses real risks to... children and developing fetuses.”
Ironically, this statement contrasts starkly with a subsequent late-December EPA announcement of a five-year research program on mercury emissions from power plants. The agency admitted in the announcement it did not know how much, if any, mercury in fish comes from power plants.
The FDA warning can only be explained as intending to boost the EPA effort. The warning comes six months after the NAS study — which itself was no cause for alarm — and precedes the release of two important studies, a follow-up to the Seychelles study and a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mercury exposure from fish consumption.
Government agencies terrorizing the public about the food supply for political gain is shameful. Hopefully the inauguration of President George W. Bush will mark the beginning of the end of such roguish conduct by regulatory agencies.