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Commonsense: Mercury in Fish Ain’t Good for You

Yet EPA’s Plans for New Mercury and Air Toxic Standards Face Sabotage by House Republicans

What’s that you have pinched between your chopsticks? That’s not… tuna, is it? Oh, please no. Not during Mercury Awareness Week.

Photo by Flickr user PacificbroTuna could be a bad dinner choice for some.

Ok, so that was actually last week. But tuna is still a dangerous choice for dinner. It’s well known that mercury, emitted by coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and around the world, settles into rivers and oceans and bioaccumulates in fish, particularly large ones like tuna. Those who eat fish regularly face significant risks of mercury poisoning.

The danger is most severe for pregnant women and small children. In the 1950s, methylmercury dumping in waters outside of Minamata city, Japan, led to abnormally high rates of congenital cerebral palsy and physical defects. Overall, adults seem more resistant to mercury poisoning, but there are exceptions: Rich Gelfond, the CEO of Imax, ate fish two or three times daily as part of a deliberately healthy diet, but then noticed that he was increasingly unable to keep his balance, and lived in constant fear of falling over. He was shocked when a test of his blood revealed mercury levels 13 times higher than the EPA’s recommended maximum. “I had no awareness,” he told the Sierra Club.

Michael Gochfeld, a professor of environmental medicine at New Jersey's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says that "We don't really understand why some adults are sensitive and others seem to be quite tolerant."

Some media outlets, notably The Wall Street Journal, contend that the dangers of industrial mercury emissions are badly exaggerated (though, if you read that editorial, make sure to also visit Media Matters’ detailed rebuttal). But there’s one fact that everyone agrees on: the stuff isn’t good for you.

That is why the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign declared “Mercury Awareness Week,” as part of their efforts to regulate polluters, and educate consumers, in order to keep mercury out of our diets. The EPA has promised to announce its new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) by December 16. It is expected that the new MATS will bring a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions, by requiring new filters to be installed at coal plants over the next three years. However, this measure is among those targeted for sabotage by House Republicans, so it’s impossible to predict how it will all play out.

But why wait on Congress, when your iPhone can solve the problem for you? Beyond Coal has just released a "Safe Sushi" app for Android and iPhones. The free app is here for Android, and will be available through iTunes on December 16. It tells the user which kinds of sushi are relatively high or low in mercury, with levels given in parts per million.

I have thus far refused to own a smartphone—in part due to a very relevant phobia of heavy metals—and my eyes always glaze over at the phrase “there’s an app for that.” But my tech-savvy, food-loving older brother was happy to give the Safe Sushi app a whirl. He found it a “useful reference,” and liked that it provides additional information on some sushi types, such as “unsustainably harvested, avoid.” He pointed out that it could be improved with more easy-to-use links to sites with additional information.

My impression is that it’s essentially a pocket-sized version of this poster, available on Beyond Coal’s website. Not very information-dense, but I suppose it’s enough to influence on-the-fly menu choices. And here’s another poster, if you like your mercury information sorted by species of fish rather than by cut of sushi.

It’s a start. Let’s hope Obama and the EPA follow through on announcing new guidelines, and enforcing the installation of better filters on coal plants. This would prevent about 30 tons of mercury each year from entering the atmosphere and making its way into aquatic food chains.

Of course, The Wall Street Journal points out that U.S. emissions account for “less than 0.5%” of all the mercury in the air: most of it comes from volcanoes, geysers, forest fires, and other sources. There are also two hundred million tons of mercury already naturally present in seawater. If that information is accurate, it’s worth wondering if the new regulation is just a drop in the ocean after all. (That pun is intended and will not be apologized for.)

Brian Scoles, Intern, Earth Island JournalBrian Scoles photo
When not writing for the Journal, Brian pursues all sorts of interests not at all related to his degree. He is passionate about intentional community living, wilderness exploration and leadership, and most recently, activism. He also works with Applied Mindfulness and is a contributor at Sustainablog.

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Comments

congrats to Sierra Club for taking the lead on the mercury-in-sushi app. You can also estimate your mercury exposure from eating fish with the free online calculators at gotmercury.org and for cell phones gotmercury.mobi Just enter your weight, fish type and serving size and a percent of risk based on the FDA’s action limits will pop up! Too bad that NGOs need to do the government’s work in warning fish eaters about mercury.

By Teri Shore on Wed, December 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

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