Contending that 200,000 American children are born each year with mercury in their blood that exceeds healthy limits, and 6% of women who may bear children have elevated mercury levels, health and environmental advocates are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of mercury in seafood. Most mercury exposure comes from eating contaminated seafood.
Mercury contamination in fish starts as air pollution, primarily from coal-fired power plants and industries like cement-making. Mercury then rains down, accumulates in mud and then enters the food chain. Wild predatory fish, like tuna and swordfish, accumulate the most mercury because it builds up in their flesh over time, as they consumer creatures lower on the food chain. Fish like sardines and wild salmon, which are shore-lived and/or eat low on the food chain, tend to have low levels of mercury contamination. Farmed fish may have high or low levels of contamination, depending on what they are fed.
Groups like the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Environmental Defense Fund publish guides (available as wallet cards or mobile apps) like the Seafood Selector, which guide consumers toward less-contaminated, sustainably harvested and healthier choices. But for people who are unaware of these guides, or who face the seafood counter unprepared, there's little information available to help guide choices.
For pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, or the parents of young children, the consequences of bad choices can have lasting consequences. Like lead, mercury can lead to permanent brain and nerve damage, affecting cognition and behavior for years to come.
The petition, filed by Earthjustice in collaboration with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and others, calls on the FDA to require retailers to post signs near seafood counters, and on the labels of packaged seafood, informing consumers about the health risks of consuming mercury. In part, the labels would counteract the labeling that trumpets seafood's healthy Omega-3 fatty acid content; while many species of fish indeed are very healthy, and even good for pregnant women and children, their nutrient content tells only part of the story consumers need to hear.
The FDA and Environmental Protection Agency published a guide to mercury in fish in 2004, but have since sometimes made contradictory statements about the safety of fish that have often been criticized by watchdogs. the EPA and state wildlife agencies routinely publish health advisories about eating wild-caught fish from many U.S. streams, lakes and rivers. The FDA regulates fish sold in seafood markets and grocery stores, but posts no warnings.
The American Medical Association called for such labeling seven years ago, and Washington State publishes a Healthy Fish Choices guide that looks similar to the guides published by non-profit watchdogs. Below are two possible advisories that the watchdogs propose:
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