NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Something Fishy

March 12, 2004

The Food and Drug Administration has issued new warnings to pregnant women about mercury in seafood. You can "protect your baby" from developmental harm by not eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish -- which contain high levels of mercury. But, there's no evidence the rules will protect anyone, and they're likely only to foster undue concern about an important part of our food supply, says Steven Milloy (Cato Institute).

It's certainly true such larger fish tend to have higher levels of mercury in their tissue, since mercury levels tend to accumulate up the food chain. But unless women are consuming fish that have been exposed to industrial-level concentrations of mercury for extended periods of time, as Japanese women in the vicinity of Minamata Bay did during the 1950s, it's not at all clear that consuming large fish is any sort of health risk, says Milloy:

  • Researchers from Harvard University's School of Public Health reported that they could not find mercury-related health effects among a group of regular swordfish consumers.
  • Although a "significant relationship between fish consumption and blood mercury concentrations" was identified by the researchers, "higher blood mercury concentrations were, however, not associated with specific patterns of health complaints."
  • There is also no evidence of a general threat to infants and children from typical maternal consumption of fish with typical mercury concentrations.

Seafood is most definitely part of a healthy diet. Further, the seafood industry is a large part of the U.S. economy. Aside from Minamata Bay, not a single clinical case of mercury poisoning associated with fish consumption is to be found in the scientific literature. It seems the FDA is warning -- and indeed scaring -- us about a scenario that has, essentially, never occurred, says Milloy.

Source: Steven Milloy, "Science Debunks FDA Warning Based on Junk Science, Experts Say," Environment and Climate News, February 2004, Heartland Institute.


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