Watch What You Eat

The US Government Continues to Lag When it Comes to Warning People about the Risks of Mercury-Laden Fish.


Mercury Poinoning information artworkRoman Greene /

The Paris Parker Aveda Salon and Spa in New Orleans caters to the city’s wealthiest clientele. The tony boutique, known for its extensive range of spa and salon treatments that pamper from head to toe – from manicures to mudpacks, facials to foot massages – offers a feel-good reprieve in the still-troubled city. But in November 2008, clients at the upscale salon were offered a treatment not regularly found on the service menu, one intent on making them feel better from the inside out: a methylmercury test. Representatives from the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Alliance for Affordable Energy, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network were at the hair salon collecting locks snipped from willing participants, which were then sent to the University of North Carolina to be tested for mercury levels.

Across the US, one in 10 women is estimated to have elevated mercury levels. In coastal regions, the figure rises to an estimated one in six. (Men are also susceptible to mercury poisoning, but women tend to get more attention on this subject, given mercury’s risks to developing fetuses.) The test results from the patrons at the Parker Paris Aveda Salon were, therefore, of little surprise to the scientists and advocacy groups conducting the tests, but they probably were to the participants. Of the 28 women who submitted hair samples at the salon, four (or one in seven) had elevated mercury, with levels above 1 part per million (ppm) – the limit currently deemed acceptable by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All 28 of the samples had mercury levels of at least 0.5 ppm.

“People just don’t know about the dangers of mercury. A lot of the women we tested were highly educated but didn’t know there are so many fish that have mercury advisories,” says Jordan Macha, conservation organizer with the Louisiana Sierra Club. “We showed them maps of where mercury advisories are along the coast, and many of them said, ‘We just ate a fish we caught from there last week.’”

Hidden Symptoms

At its lowest levels, mercury toxicity can produce physical symptoms that may not point immediately to the cause. After all, fatigue, headaches, and irritability are so common as to be unremarkable. But mercury, once introduced into our bodies, is not easily flushed from our systems, and can soon accumulate to produce drastically life-altering symptoms, such as chronic kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. In extreme cases of exposure – for example, the poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s, during which thousands of people ate seafood containing methylmercury – victims can suffer paralysis, insanity, coma, or death.

Researchers have learned a great deal about how mercury affects human health. Yet there is little information on how the element affects the health of fish and marine mammals. Mercury particles from sources such as coal-fired power plants can remain airborne for 600 miles or more before they land in major waterways and their tributaries, either directly or by adhering to rain or snow. Once back on the planet’s surface, the particles undergo a complex biochemical process during which microorganisms and bacteria living in bodies of water convert the mercury particles into methylmercury, a much more toxic substance. These new methylmercury particles adhere to plants and float in the water, where they are consumed by small fish and absorbed into their cells. In turn, smaller fish are consumed by larger predatory fish, and mercury continues to accumulate at the apex of the marine food chain until the levels contained within the top predators render them dangerous for consumption.

A recent study on beached dolphins conducted by Dr. Ross Thompson and student Alissa Monk at Monash University in Australia found beached dolphins to contain 3.45 mg of mercury per kg, twice the level found in live dolphins. Thompson was quoted in the June 2008 issue of Chemistry World: “The mercury levels we found in the dead dolphins were high enough to be causing quite severe neurological effects. Even the levels in the apparently healthy population would be expected to cause immune deficits, at the very least.”

The Government Flounders

So what is being done? Mercury poisoning is nothing new; US health officials issued advisories about tainted tuna in the 1970s, and today people are just as susceptible to the ill effects of fish consumption. Despite the dangers mercury consumption has posed for decades, there are still no warnings posted in many fish markets, none required on restaurant menus, and none on labels of tinned seafood. Evidently it is the public’s burden to educate themselves – via the media or online research – about the dangers of eating mercury-heavy fish. But if the news that there are dangerous levels of mercury in fish is supposed to be public knowledge, there are many people who haven’t digested the message.

Dr. Jane Hightower has seen the damage that a lack of warning labels can cause. Author of the new book Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics, and Poison, Hightower has treated an influx of patients experiencing varying degrees of mercury exposure at her practice in San Francisco, CA. Many of her patients come from Marin County, an idyllic locale nestled in the hills just north of San Francisco. Marin is stunningly beautiful, and perfectly positioned for people there to have high levels of mercury. The most recent US census lists Marin County as having the highest per capita income in the country. The high income levels mean that Marin residents are able to afford the types of fish that are most apt to contain higher levels of mercury – tuna, swordfish, and shark, for example – all of which are readily available in the Bay Area, and all of which are generally more expensive than fish with lower levels of mercury, such as herring, flounder, and tilapia.

But with few warning labels found at the point of purchase, there is little protection for the consumer. “Since the FDA has not protected the public adequately, it’s a ‘buyer beware’ market,” Hightower says. “The more fish you consume, the less mercury each serving should have.” Since, generally speaking, smaller fish contain less mercury, Hightower gives her patients a basic rule of thumb: Never purchase fish that, when alive and whole, is bigger than the plate on which it will be served.

One Man’s Fish Is Another Man’s Poison

In the September 1994 issue of FDA Consumer, the agency established 1 ppm as the allowable mercury limit. This figure is among the highest in the world, according to information posted on Thailand and India set their standards at 0.5 ppm, Japan at 0.4 ppm, and the United Kingdom and China at 0.3 ppm.

photo of a woman gettin her hair cut, small child in her lapCourtesy of the Louisiana Sierra ClubMethylmercury levels are best tested by taking
hair samples. The test usually costs less than the
haircut itself.

In December 2008, the FDA drafted a report urging the government to relax the standard even further. Reacting to the idea, Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, told The Washington Post: “This is an astonishing, irresponsible document. It’s a commentary on how low FDA has sunk as an agency. It was once a fierce protector of America’s health, and now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters.”

No matter what level of mercury government agencies consider within the limits of acceptability, Dr. Hightower objects to viewing the mercury problem from that perspective. “The only acceptable limit of mercury in our bodies is zero,” she says.

A visit to other government Web sites only confuses the issue. For example, the EPA site at first touts the benefits of eating fish: “Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children’s proper growth and development. So, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.”

Read that first paragraph only, however, and you’ll miss an important message introduced in the second: “However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury.” The severity of the message is all but negated by the sentence that follows: “For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern.” It’s a mixed grill of messages, sloppily served.

The problem of mercury contamination is indeed so pervasive that the EPA’s fish advisories, albeit poorly publicized, are now in effect in every region of the US, both coastal and inland. In Florida, nine species of fish are listed in the advisory. In landlocked Nebraska, 40 bodies of water are listed as containing contaminated fish. And in Texas, it’s not the affected regions that are listed, but rather those regions that are not affected – a reasonable indication that it’s easier to post the shorter of the two lists.

Fool’s Coal

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance – but not in fish. It is, however, a natural component of coal. When coal is burned in power plants, mercury is released in the process. Every year, according to government statistics, human activities, mostly the burning of coal for fuel, release about 2,000 to 3,000 tons of mercury into the atmosphere. This threat to the oceans originates on land.

The Sierra Club’s Macha says that the government is making the wrong people pay for mercury pollution. “The EPA really should be stepping up its game on putting up fish advisories. But ultimately it’s just unfair for people to have to change their diet because of the coal industry. The coal plants are able to just spew out this mercury pollution, and everyone around them has to change because of it.”

During the debates leading up to the 2008 presidential election, both Republican and Democratic candidates referred to “clean coal,” as if there were a variety of the rock that could be burned without any negative ramifications. But what exactly does “clean coal” mean?

Ted Nace of coalSwarm, a project of Earth Island Institute, responds: “The coal industry has used the term ‘clean coal,’ as far as I can tell, since before World War I, and they used to use it to talk about anthracite, because it doesn’t produce as much smoke. They keep using the phrase in different ways. When the Clean Air Act came along, they started using ‘clean coal’ to refer to power plants that had some emissions reductions. When you press them on clean coal, they use it in very much of a PR sense. They want you to think they’ve solved the climate change problem.”

More than 600 power plants in the US burn coal, generating more than half of the country’s electricity. Most of the coal-fired power plants in the US were built 30 to 40 years ago, at a time when pollution went virtually unchecked. Older plants were built without the technology currently available that minimizes mercury emissions.

While amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 have made some strides toward reducing some factory emissions – particularly carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide, and fluorinated gases, all of which are responsible for climate change – they’ve done little to address mercury emissions. As a result, in some plants, the problem of mercury emissions is actually worsening. A report from the Environmental Integrity Project states that in 2007, the top 50 dirtiest coal-burning power plants in the US spewed 20 tons of toxic mercury. Of the top 10 of those plants, nine of them had increased their mercury emissions from the year before. Among those plants is Southern Company’s J. H. Miller Power Plant in Jefferson County, AL, which single-handedly accounted for nearly a ton of mercury air pollution in 2007 – a 13.57 percent increase over the plant’s 2006 reported emissions.

A loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts coal-fired power plants that were already in existence at the time of the law’s amendments from reducing their emissions at all. Newer plants, however, must upgrade their plants to comply with the Act’s amendments or face fines of up to $27,500 daily, fines that some believe are poorly enforced. According to the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) site: “EPA data shows at least two years of recurring violations of the Clean Air Act” at the J. H. Miller plant. However, AEC continues, “Neither ADEM [Alabama Department of Environmental Management] nor EPA reports show formal enforcement or penalties within the last two years.”

photo of a sign warning of mercury contamination Chuck Seggelin / Sagewood Studios

Upgrading plants with new technology is expensive. To install scrubbing mechanisms in power plants can cost millions if not billions of dollars. Some companies have chosen to simply cease operations rather than undertake costly upgrades. In Canada, for example, the Ontario Power Authority permanently ceased operation at four power plants rather than install $1.6 billion worth of scrubbing technology to reduce mercury emissions – technology that wouldn’t have had any effect on those emissions responsible for climate change.

Other companies, anticipating stricter legislation in the future, are deciding to install mercury-reduction systems. Spokesperson Michael Szjnaderman of Alabama Power says that between now and 2013, the company is installing $2 billion worth of scrubbers that will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and 40 percent of mercury emissions. “Right now, we don’t know what the mercury standards are going to be,” Szjnaderman says. “We’re moving forward with this technology anticipating we’re going to have regulations for mercury emissions.”

A Quicksilver Lining

While the EPA and FDA have many people frustrated about the government’s lack of action on mercury emissions, there is cause for optimism. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, recently celebrated a nearly decade-long struggle to get the EPA to introduce standards to regulate mercury emissions from the US’s 151 cement kilns, which are collectively responsible for 11 tons of mercury emissions annually.

What might make the biggest dent in the reduction of mercury emissions, Nace points out, is climate change. As activists gather steam to pressure the government into addressing this problem, the primary source of mercury emissions – coal-fired power plants – may gradually be replaced with power sources that produce neither the climate-changing emissions nor mercury. Since 2007, plans for 79 new coal-fired plants in the US have been scrapped due to concern about their added contribution to climate change.

Nace believes any money that companies spend on upgrading technology could be put to better use. By closing down coal-fired power plants, we could at once reduce dangerous carbon dioxide emissions and address the mercury pollution in the oceans. A single solution could resolve two pressing problems.

“This climate problem is so looming,” Nace says, “it doesn’t even make sense to put controls on these old plants. We were on track to deal with these problems. But now, with climate change, why spend millions to reduce emissions? Why not just build a windmill instead?”

Audrey Webb is the associate editor of Earth Island Journal.

Poisoned Lunch

For years, the Japanese government has permitted the annual killing of some 20,000 dolphins near its shores. The fact of this slaughter is steadily becoming well-known outside of Japan. But the dirty secret remains that the meat from these animals – some of which is given to Japanese children in their school lunches – is laced with dangerous levels of mercury.

Research by environmental groups has repeatedly documented levels of mercury contamination in dolphin meat samples sold in Japanese supermarkets that exceed safety levels set by the Japanese health agency. Yet the government has been silent on the issue and has refused all efforts to deal with this public health threat.

In one examination, researchers with the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan (ENC) acquired a slice of meat from a bottlenose dolphin that was butchered in Futo, a city southeast of Tokyo, in November 2004. ENC sent the sample to Dr. Tetsuya Endo of the Health Science University of Hokkaido to test for mercury contamination. The dolphin meat was found to contain 19.2 parts per million of mercury. This is 48 times higher than the maximum advisory level of 0.4 ppm, set by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry of Japan.

In 2002 and 2003, ENC sent several packages of dolphin meat from Miyagi Prefecture to the local governmental Inspecting Center of Public Health in Ibaraki Prefecture and Dr. Endo. The dolphin meat had been sold in Ito City and in a town named Kawazu, located in the southern part of Izu peninsula. The inspection by both the government Inspection Center and Dr. Endo showed all of the meat was contaminated by mercury. One package of dolphin meat showed as much as 5.69 ppm of mercury – 14.2 times higher than the maximum advisory level.

More recent independent studies – some sponsored by Earth Island Institute, which has been at the forefront of efforts to stop Japan’s dolphin slaughter, the largest in the world – show that the meat of dolphins and whales ranges from about four times higher to nearly 36 times higher than the Health Ministry’s safe level of 0.4 ppm. Dolphins are at the top of the food chain, so any ocean contamination can be magnified up the chain until the apex predators – dolphins and other marine mammals – show extremely high levels of mercury poisoning.

Japanese scientists have concluded that mercury levels in the bodies of dolphins killed in the annual hunt off the town of Taiji are higher than the mercury levels in the fish when Minamata disease struck Japan in the 1950s and ‘60s. Like Mad Hatters’ disease, Minamata disease attacks the nervous system, causing the body to twitch and jerk uncontrollably, affecting speech and often resulting in death. Fetuses exposed to mercury in the womb are particularly susceptible to mercury poisoning, and often are born with severe disabilities. An estimated 10,000 persons were contaminated by mercury in Minamata Bay, more than 3,000 of whom died.

The Japanese Health Ministry is well aware of the risk of eating mercury-contaminated food. But it is eclipsed by the far more politically powerful Japanese Fisheries Agency, which runs the Taiji dolphin hunt. The Agency has worked successfully to hide the dolphin slaughter from its own citizens, and has clamped a lid on any stories about whales and dolphins in the Japanese media that vary from the government’s story.

Richard O’Barry, director of the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, notes that the real reason the Japanese government issues permits to kill dolphins by the thousands every year has nothing to do with food culture. It has to do with “pest control.”

“As shocking as it sounds, some Japanese government officials view dolphins as pests to be eradicated in huge numbers,” O’Barry says. “During a meeting at Taiji Town Hall, the fishermen of Taiji admitted this to us. ‘We don’t kill the dolphins primarily for their meat. We kill them as a form of pest control,’ they told us. In other words, killing the competition is their way of preserving the ocean’s fish for themselves.”

—Mark J. Palmer

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