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Government guidelines on mercury in fish { March 19 2004 }

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Women, Children Warned About Tuna Consumption
Government Offers More Specific Guidelines on Mercury in Fish

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2004; 5:02 PM

For the first time, the federal government has warned pregnant and nursing women and their young children away from eating more than a limited amount of canned albacore or "white" tuna because of potential hazards from mercury in the fish.

Responding to research that shows concentrations of mercury are significantly higher in the albacore tuna than the canned "light" tuna, the government advised potentially vulnerable consumers today to eat only 6 ounces -- one average meal -- of albacore tuna per week.

The joint Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency guidance also told women of child-bearing age to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because of the high levels of mercury.

The controversial recommendation regarding tuna was immediately attacked as inadequate by a member of the FDA advisory panel that addressed it. University of Arizona toxicologist Vas Aposhian today resigned from the panel, saying that the advisory did not reflect the experts' view that child-bearing women and children should not eat albacore tuna at all and should eat less light tuna than the advisory states.

"We wanted albacore on the list of fish not to eat," Aposhian said. "We knew that wouldn't happen because of the pressure from the industry, but we certainly didn't think there should be a recommendation to eat six ounces of albacore."

Mercury, which gets into water and then the food supply through industrial pollution, builds up to potentially hazardous levels of methyl mercury in larger fish. A toxin, methyl mercury can cause neurological and development problems in infants and young children.

Tuna is the second most popular seafood in the United States, and the issue of whether child-bearing women and children should be warned away from it has been a controversial one for some time.

The tuna industry has generally resisted the warning and questioned the scientific findings underlying it, while some consumer and environmental groups have pressed for stronger action and have gone to court to achieve it. The question of whether consumers should be warned away from tuna is also complicated because tuna and other fish have many especially high quality proteins and other nutrients.

In trying to achieve a balance, the federal agencies issued the advisory about albacore tuna while also listing low-mercury fish that can be more widely eaten -- including shrimp, canned "light" tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. The advisory recommended eating up to 12 ounces (or two average meals) of these fish per week. According to the FDA, fish sticks are largely made from pollock, and so are in the low-risk category.

"By following this advice, we're confident that women and young children can safely include fish as an important part of a healthy diet," said FDA acting commissioner Lester M. Crawford.

The danger from eating tuna is limited to children and women who are or may soon be pregnant because the mercury is mainly harmful in early years of development, according to David Acheson, medical coordinator for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He said that the threat from mercury in fish is not effected by whether, or how the fish is cooked.

In a release, the U.S. Tuna Foundation, which represents much of the industry, emphasized the positive message from the federal agencies -- that eating fish has many benefits, and that even women of child-bearing age and youngsters can safety eat some of it.

"By advising pregnant women and nursing mothers to eat a variety of different species of seafood a week, the government's advisory also makes it clear that pregnant and nursing women can safely consume albacore as one of their fish choices," the foundation wrote. "The new advisory tells pregnant women they can safely eat up to six ounces of albacore a week (an average sandwich contains 2 ounces)."

The foundation said that about 78 percent of tuna sold is the lower-mercury "light" variety, while 22 percent is the albacore -- which has more mercury because the fish are older and larger. About $1.3 billion in tuna was sold in the United States last year.

The greatest single source of mercury in the environment is coal-fired power plants. Emissions from the plants drift into lakes and streams, where they are transformed in combination with bacteria to methyl mercury. The bacteria is then eaten by fish, which are then eaten by larger and larger fish -- ending with deep-sea fish like tuna and swordfish. The Clinton administration proposed rules to limit mercury emissions by 2007. The Bush administration has pushed back demands to begin cutting mercury emissions to 2010.

Yesterday's fish advisory was sharply criticized by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit group of environmental investigators that has sued the FDA over allegedly withholding information regarding mercury in seafood.

"The coal and seafood industries' interests today beat out the health interests of America's children in the form of dangerous advice from the FDA on so-called 'safe' consumption levels for fish contaminated with mercury, particularly tuna," said senior vice president Richard Wiles. "Air pollution from coal burned in power plants is a major source of mercury in fish. If women follow the FDA's advice and eat one can of albacore tuna a week, hundreds of thousands more babies will be exposed to hazardous levels of mercury."

2004 The Washington Post Company

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