For years, confusion and fear have reined in the fish market, as consumers wondered with good reason, "Is this fish safe to eat?" Yes, we were told, fish is a healthy, lean source of protein, and is often loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. But big capital-B But it might also be contaminated with pollution that could cause serious health problems like cancer and brain damage, particularly if pregnant women expose their unborn babies, or young children consume too much tainted fish.
With a new rule proposed Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken long-overdue action to clean up one major source of pollution in fish: mercury, which is a potent neurotoxin. Specifically, mercury from coal-fired power plants the major source of the mercury in fish.
When power plants burn coal, naturally occurring mercury emitted by smokestacks ultimately rains down and contaminates lakes, rivers and reservoirs; in the mud, it is converted naturally into a more potent toxic form, and it enters the food chain. Because mercury accumulates in living tissues, each predator in the food chain grows more toxic, from eating all the contaminated food lower down the chain and we are the unnatural recipients of all that toxic mercury, since many of the fish we eat are top predators. Tuna, swordfish, shark and mackerel are some of the most highly contaminated fish available in markets, and perhaps even more tragically wild-caught trout, perch and bass in seemingly pristine inland waters are often so contaminated that states warn anglers against eating their catch, or sharing the simple pleasures of a fishing trip with their children.
Power plants are responsible for about half the mercury pollution in the U.S. today, since earlier efforts by the EPA have successfully reduced emissions from medical and municipal incinerators, which until 1990 rivaled power plants for mercury pollution. (Cement plants, another major source of mercury, are also coming under a new EPA pollution rule, but there is opposition to it in Congress that threatens to derail the health benefits of stopping unfettered air pollution.) Administrative wrangling and legal battles have held up these rules on mercury for more than a decade. And politics could still intrude, as the EPA considers public comment on the proposed rule at a time when Republicans in Congress are openly hostile to the mission of the EPA (which estimates, by the way, that the rule to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution will save as much as $140 billion with a B annually, in reduced healthcare costs by stopping as many as 17,000 premature deaths and thousands of heart attacks and cases of asthma and bronchitis).
Environmental and health groups, from the American Lung Association to the Environmental Defense Fund, cheered the announcement. The Sierra Club, to demonstrate the ongoing danger from mercury pollution, is staging a series of free events across the U.S. that will test citizens' hair for mercury contamination.
Unfortunately, there are still other contaminants, like PCBs, that can be found in fish, and even if this rule takes effect as scheduled in November, mercury will linger at dangerous levels in the food chain for years, if not decades. To choose fish that is safe to eat, consult with a guide like Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector, which identifies which fish are most nutritious, least contaminated and sustainably caught... and which, conversely, you should avoid.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.