The FDA’s Mercury Problem


photo: The Atlantic

In an interview last week, FDA secretary Margaret Hamburg stated that the FDA will soon update its recommendations for pregnant women with respect to fish consumption and mercury levels.

What’s this all about?

Large predator fish such as tuna and swordfish accumulate pollutants in the ocean over the course of their lives, which is measured in years. The most dangerous chemical is methyl mercury. When we eat these fish, we ingest it. Excess consumption of methyl mercury can lead to mercury poisoning – permanent brain damage and damage to other organs. Pregnant women and small children are most susceptible.

The thresholds for safe consumption were set by the EPA and FDA in the past, but some groups have been concerned that these thresholds were not safe enough. Consumer Reports urged the FDA to add warning labels to canned tuna, but was met with a nay. Now comes the FDA’s announcement that it will update recommendations, but still won’t require labeling.

As usual, the FDA is caught between a rock and a hard place. Instead of looking out for consumers, it has to appease politicians and the lobbies that support them. While labeling mercury levels on relevant fish products would best serve pregnant women and parents of young children, it may impacts sales of fish products. The relevant aquaculture and fishing lobbies will not stand for that. As a result we the public will need to figure it out for ourselves.

What to do at the supermarket

The bigger the fish, the more mercury it has deposited in its flesh. So stay away from shark meat, swordfish, king mackerel, and albacore tuna. Small fry, such as sardines and anchovies, are an excellent source of protein and omega-3, without the bonus toxins. This is because they live for a short period of time before being harvested, so their body does not have time to accumulate mercury.

Canned tuna is by far the largest single source of mercury in the US diet. It accounts for nearly one-third of total exposure. Our recommendations:

  • Choose light tuna (Skipjack, Bluefin, Yellowfin, Ahi)
  • Stay away from white tuna (Albacore, Longfin). Light tuna has just one third the amount of mercury as white tuna
  • Always prefer tuna packed in water, not oil
  • For kids under the age of 8, limit tuna consumption to once a month
  • For older children – twice a month is fine.
  • Max Headroom

    Where did the mercury come from? Was it introduced by humans or naturally occurring?

    • Fooducate

      factory waste

  • JKern

    This is an important article, thank you. Can you tell us what your recommendations for consumption are based on?

    • JKern

      Oh, Mr. Moderator… how did you develop your recommendations? It seems a bit presumptuous for a non-health professional to be dispensing public health advice without sharing its source. Just sayin’.

  • H2O

    The Fruad and Death Administration is very Evil.

  • Jason Harrison

    Factory waste, mining waste (especially gold) coal burning, boat/ship hull protective paints, wooden dock piling preservatives, electronics, broken fluorescent lights, etc. Because mercury like other persistent environmental pollutants circulates in the environment and is not easily removed from the body, it accumulates up the food chain. Mercury however is a natural element, a heavy metal, and its use in products is being decreased (as well as the use of lead). But as long as you eat any animal products your eating from the output end of a persistent environmental pollutant filter.

  • Disgusted

    I don’t the hell care ..I don’t eat tuna anymore because of the mercury and I don’t miss it or need it in my diet….leave it to the dirty politicians to want to hide the truth..what do you expect of dirty politicians??????

  • Disgusted

    It’s introduced by humans ..they are ruining the earth..or rather have ruined the earth

  • Mike

    That’s surprising, I had done research previous to this coming to the conclusion that white albacore tuna is the only easy to come by fish, that is hand caught! It’s unfortunate I’m also being told it has high concentrating of mercury, I guess pick your poison. Eat fish that’s hand caught/dont condone to overfishing and fish farms while potentially eating high amounts of mercury.. . OR condone to eating net caught/overfished, fish farmed creatures, which may or may not be less concentrated in mercury. Hard choice eh? Also the reasoning my oceanography teacher recommended hand caught vs fish farmed is because mercury amplifies VERY quickly in most fish farms dependant on their diet and other factors.

    Something to consider.

    • Mike

      Concentrations* stupid auto correct!