Sunday January 22, 2006
What Fish You Buy Is Key To Avoiding Mercury
By MICHAEL HAWTHORNE and SAM ROE
CHICAGO - Shipped from Singapore, the swordfish entered the United States without being tested for the toxic metal mercury.
When a fillet from that fish reached a display case at a supermarket in Illinois, it carried no government warning labels, even though federal officials know swordfish often is so contaminated that young children and pregnant women should never eat it.
When tested in a Chicago Tribune investigation, the fish showed mercury levels at three times the legal limit.
Despite decades of knowing high mercury levels can cause learning disabilities in children and neurological problems for adults, the government's mercury testing, warnings and rules enforcement appear inadequate.
And while regulators have issued numerous warnings for fish caught recreationally, they have rarely done so for seafood sold in supermarkets, where most people buy their fish.
But while it makes no difference where you shop - supermarkets, health food stores and gourmet fish shops often use the same suppliers - consumers can reduce their risks by choosing to buy certain kinds of seafood.
Small or short-lived species, such as sardines, shrimp, crab and tilapia, generally have low amounts of mercury. Wild salmon, which eat plankton and small fish, are low in mercury, as are farm-raised salmon, which are fed fish meal containing little mercury.
Large predator fish, such as swordfish and shark, generally have the most mercury.
Regulators report that fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches, which typically are made with pollock, are low in mercury.
Cooking does not remove mercury from fish because the metal is bound to the meat. A piece of tuna will have the same amount of mercury whether it is eaten raw as sushi or cooked on the grill.
Money offers no protection against mercury exposure. Rutgers University scientist Joanna Burger compared fish bought at stores in wealthy New Jersey areas with those bought in poor ones. She found no differences in mercury levels.
"They were mainly getting their fish from the same source," said Burger.
Whole Foods Market, which bills itself as the world's leading retailer of natural foods, said its seafood likely has as much mercury as fish sold elsewhere.
In small children, the symptoms of mercury poisoning are subtle decreases in learning abilities, delays in walking and talking and decreases in attention or memory.
For adults, symptoms are numbness in hands and feet, headaches, fatigue, loss of concentration, coordination or memory, blurred vision, hair loss, nausea and tremors.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission. E-mail
Caption: CHICAGO - Shipped from Singapore, the swordfish entered the United States without being tested for the toxic metal mercury.</ CAPTION>;
June 15, 1996
SHOW: All Things Considered (NPR 4:30 pm ET)
Pregnant Women Should Avoid Eating Predatory Fish
GUESTS: JOANNA BURGER, Rutgers University;
BYLINE: DANIEL ZWERDLING
SECTION: News; Domestic
LENGTH: 1535 words
HIGHLIGHT: Many agencies are releasing official consumer advisories warning people not to eat too much of certain kinds of seafood which may be contaminated. Pregnant women, especially, should avoid eating predatory fish.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, Host: Warning - if you are pregnant or under 15 years old, do not eat more than one meal per month containing bass, yellow perch or northern pike if it's been caught in lakes and reservoirs in Michigan, or you or your fetus could be poisoned by toxic chemicals. Warning - whether you're a child or an adult - do not eat any lake trout or Chinook salmon if it's been caught in Lake Ontario.
These semi-apocalyptic warnings are official consumer advisories issued recently by Michigan and New York states. According to a report this past week by the Environmental Protection Agency, various states across the country warned consumers last year to avoid eating fish from more than 1,700 lakes and rivers because the fish were contaminated with such high levels of chemicals, including PCBs, mercury and the infamous DDT.
Most of the advisories were about eating sports fish that people catch themselves at the weekends, not the fish you buy in stores. But biologist Joanna Burger of Rutgers University says fish lovers should take these warnings seriously.
JOANNA BURGER, Rutgers University: For most people, for the average adult, if they eat a little more than the fish advisories that are being put out by the states, they would not suffer unduly, there would not be great problems. The difficulty with fish, as is the difficulty with most contaminants, is that some populations are more at risk than others. And in this case, the population at risk is pregnant women, and pregnant women because most of these contaminants go through the placenta to the developing fetus. And so it's really the developing baby that is of most concern.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And some of the chemicals found most often in these fish, and in the most disturbing levels, include PCBs and the pesticide chlordane.
JOANNA BURGER: Uh-huh.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And those are striking findings, it seems to me, because both of these chemicals have been banned, right? PCBs were used in electrical equipment, chlordane was used against termites, but nobody uses them anymore, so why are they in all these fish?
JOANNA BURGER: Well, there's two answers to that. One is that most of the chemicals that are a problem are very long-lasting and they don't go away. Another reason is that these chemicals are only banned in the United States; they are not necessarily banned in other places. And so, some of these things can be carried in the air in particles and be deposited various places. We found PCBs and mercury and other contaminants in fish in the high Arctic where they've never been used directly.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Really? So one of the main problems is not the factory that's upstream that's dumping chemicals in the water. It could be a factory that's blowing mercury, for example, into the air a few hundred miles away?
JOANNA BURGER: Absolutely.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Now, you started off saying that only certain populations, especially pregnant women, need to take these fish advisories seriously. What sort of studies have you seen that convince you and other health researchers that an actual human being - an actual pregnant woman in this country - could realistically eat enough of a fish from a certain great lake to really cause health problems in her fetus?
JOANNA BURGER: That's a very large question. Let me start out by saying we first learned about some of these problems from Minamata, which is a place in Japan where there was a mercury spill and people ate a lot of mercury. And there were a number of problems with that, also, to begin with, with tremors and problems with speaking and vision and hearing, which eventually led, in some cases, to convulsions and death. So it was a very severe thing in Minamata.
But what we began to see after that, with the people from Minimata, was that the babies that were born of the women who had eaten fish - and not excessive amounts of fish - were that you began to get developmental problems, and the developmental problems are things- the same sort of things; it affects IQ, it affects vision, it affects hearing.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: But, of course, I'm hearing a pregnant woman in Wisconsin saying, 'Yeah, but I'm not talking about huge mercury spill here; I'm talking about eating a few fish per week.'
JOANNA BURGER: That's exactly right. It is also true with mercury - with low levels of mercury - in some of the studies that are being done in places where there is low-level of exposure of mercury on pregnant women. They're beginning to find real effects in children, and the real effects in children are on cognitive function. And they're statistical; they're very small.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: But you're- but you're saying that there are some studies that show that the amount of fish that an American could realistically eat could, in fact, cause subtle behavioral changes in their children?
JOANNA BURGER: Yes. If- yes. If a pregnant woman eats much more than the advisory, that's true.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: You said that most of the advisories that have been put out have to do with fish that we catch just as- on the side as a hobby fishing on the weekend, not the stuff we buy in stores. Do you see any fish, though, in the stores that either have advisories or that you think should have advisories, and don't?
JOANNA BURGER: Absolutely. I think the problem with commercial fisheries and advisories is a political one, and it's a complicated one. It's complicated by the fact that fish is an excellent source of protein, and that has to be balanced against the potential harm that could be caused by these low-level contaminants.
But let me say at the outset that some states have now issued advisories for pregnant woman eating canned tuna fish, because tuna fish is one of the fishes that's a problem. As you can well imagine, there's a very big tuna fish lobby that doesn't want such advisories placed on their product.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And what's the potential problem in tuna?
JOANNA BURGER: Because tuna fish accumulates mercury.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: How about fresh fish? Are there any fresh fish in the markets that you would advise us not to eat, or not to eat too much of?
JOANNA BURGER: Yes. I would advise that people should limit the consumption of fish which are predators, and by fish which are predators, I mean fish which are eating other fish, because any fish that lives a long time and that eats other fish has a higher potential for accumulating toxics like mercury. The older an organism is, the more it could accumulate such heavy metals, just like people.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Great, so now at the fish store, I don't only have to ask, 'When did you catch this?' but 'Is this a predator or not?' [laughs]
JOANNA BURGER: Well, you know, that's true, and that's one of the things that I think the press has a responsibility to try and help people understand, because fish is a very good source of protein, and I wouldn't want anyone to stop eating fish because of contaminant levels. I think it's a matter of using our head, and there are two factors in that. One is to not eat the predatory fish - or not eat a large amount of the predatory fish - and the other is in how we cook it. If you take- even if you take a predatory fish, like a shark or a bluefish, if you cook the whole fish and you fry it in oil, you're probably getting everything that's in there. If you fillet it and you only use the fillet, and you broil it, so that you're not eating the fat, then you decrease the toxin that you're going to get.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: I think this is probably causing a lot of anxiety among fish lovers [laughs] all of the things we have to remember to ask at a fish store. I guess it's not a funny matter, really. Can you give me any better advice than that - you know - do not eat fresh, big swordfish or tuna more than once a week, more than once a month, more than once a year? Can you give me any numbers?
JOANNA BURGER: Probably- For the average adult, probably more than once a week, but if you're a woman of child-bearing age and you're trying to get pregnant or you think you might get pregnant, then I would not eat one of those large fish - like shark, bluefish or swordfish. I would not eat it more than once a month.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Hmmm, whatever happened to the good old days? Biologist Joanna Burger of Rutgers University, thanks very much.
JOANNA BURGER: OK.
[This program has been professionally transcribed by Journal Graphics.
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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it may not have been proofread against tape.
PERSON: DANIEL ZWERDLING (90%);
ORGANIZATION: RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (82%); RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (82%); ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (57%); ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (57%);
COUNTRY: UNITED STATES (93%);
STATE: MICHIGAN, USA (93%); NEW YORK, USA (79%);
COMPANY: RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (82%); RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (82%); ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (57%); ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (57%);
SUBJECT: Food & Nutrition; Disease PREGNANCY & CHILDBIRTH (92%); LAKES (90%); SEAFOOD (90%); TOXIC & HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCES (90%); PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS (89%); POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYLS (89%); DAMS & RESERVOIRS (77%); PESTICIDES (76%); ENVIRONMENTAL DEPARTMENTS (74%);
LOAD-DATE: June 16, 1996
Transcript # 2245-5
Copyright 1996 National Public Radio (R)
All Rights Reserved
September 23, 1996, Monday, Late Edition - Final
NEW JERSEY DAILY BRIEFING;
Birds Imperiled by Pollutants
BYLINE: By ANDY NEWMAN
SECTION: Section B; Page 1; Column 1; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 151 words
Many seabirds off the New Jersey coast have so much lead and mercury in their bodies that their chances for survival are threatened, according to a Rutgers University study reported by The Associated Press yesterday.
Joanna Burger, a Rutgers ecologist who has studied birds in Barnegat Bay for 20 years, has found mercury in the feathers of black skimmers in the bay at more than five times the concentration known to affect reproduction. She also found snowy egret eggs containing more than twice the amount of mercury known to affect reproduction.
Lead and mercury levels dropped in the area's seabirds in the 1970's, but rose again in the late 1980's, Professor Burger said. Possible causes of contamination include dredging that stirs up pollutants in muck; pollution in South America, where birds migrate; lead-based paint on bridges, and lapses in environmental law enforcement, she said.
COUNTRY: UNITED STATES (92%); SOUTH AMERICA (65%);
STATE: NEW JERSEY, USA (92%);
COMPANY: RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY ASSOCIATED PRESS (72%); RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (93%); RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (93%);
ORGANIZATION: RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (93%); RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (93%);
GEOGRAPHIC: NEW JERSEY; UNITED STATES (92%); SOUTH AMERICA (65%); NEW JERSEY, USA (92%);
SUBJECT: BIRDS; LEAD; MERCURY (METAL); WATER POLLUTION BIRDS (90%); WATER POLLUTION (90%); COASTAL AREAS (90%); LEAD (88%); ECOLOGY & ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE (88%); COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES (88%); RESEARCH REPORTS (88%); HEAVY METALS & TOXIC MINERALS (88%); LEAD PAINT (73%); ENVIRONMENTAL LAW (66%);
PERSON: NEWMAN, ANDY JOANNA BURGER (75%);
LOAD-DATE: September 23, 1996
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company