FDA'S FAILURE ON MERCURY-TAINTED FOODS IS CALIFORNIA'S OPPORTUNITY
by Andy Peri
American Reporter Correspondent
Forest Knolls, Calif.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Recent controversy over the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mishandling of mercury warnings in tuna only further strengthens the urgent need for the state of California to adequately warn consumers of the dangers of mercury-contaminated seafood.
This week, the FDA released a draft of new consumer advisory on mercury-contaminated seafood consumption. The new draft advisory was released as damage control to placate an outcry of criticism for the FDA failing to adequately warn pregnant women and children about the risks of eating albacore "white" canned tuna. Although the FDA's own testing confirmed that white tuna contains significantly high levels of mercury-three times higher than previously acknowledged-it did not release the results until requested to do so under a recent Freedom of Information Act Request by the Environmental Working Group.
With the federal government asleep at the wheel, California has a golden opportunity to protect both children and adults from being sickened by seafood contaminated with mercury by simply fully enforcing Proposition 65 "right to know" labeling of mercury-contaminated seafood and launching a public education effort about the risks.
Despite coal, oil and tuna industry-funded studies that attempt to confuse the public regarding the toxicity of mercury, the heavy metal is extremely toxic. To date 237 scientific studies have demonstrated that mercury can cause a range of health problems, even at relatively low concentrations. Mercury poisoning symptoms include muscle aches, tremors, hair and memory loss, numbness and nausea. At greatest risk are fetuses, infants, and young children. Mercury can pass through the placenta, where it can harm the fetus by interfering with proper brain and nervous system development.
Children exposed to mercury levels may show signs of attention deficit, impaired visual-spatial skills and poor coordination. Affected children may have lower scores on intelligence tests and exhibit symptoms of delayed verbal and motor skills.
Mercury finds its way into the tissues of species that are highest on the food chain. Airborne mercury from power plants and other sources (mostly of human origin) finds its way into the ocean through direct deposition and rainwater runoff and bioaccumulates up the food chain onto our plates.
The FDA and the State of California both warn the public that eating certain species of fish can be dangerous for your health and warns women of childbearing age to completely avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Recent data also show that Chilean sea bass have high mercury levels in their tissue.
Also deeply troubling is the fact that the species highest in mercury are caught by "longline" fishing methods that maim and kill 4 million endangered sea turtles, dolphins, whales, porpoises, sharks, sea lions and seabirds in the Pacific Ocean each year.
California law, under Proposition 65, provides a simple method to warn consumers about the health risks of mercury by requiring product labeling. Despite this requirement, Safeway, Kroger's, Albertson's and Whole Foods are failing to put up these warning signs for their customers. Fortunately, California is taking steps in the right direction - but more still needs to be done.
Earlier this year, the Attorney's General Office sued these grocery store chains under the Proposition 65 for their failure to post mercury warning signs for their customers. Almost a year later, these California grocers, despite scientific evidence that they are selling fish dangerous to eat, continue to neglect the law.
According to a recent survey of 109 stores, nearly 75% are either not posting signs or are posting them in places where they are not likely to be seen by customers purchasing contaminated fish. When the Attorney General makes a move to enforce the law, these stores could face hefty fines of up to $2,500 per violation.
In early December, the California Department of Health Services was presented with an administrative petition signed by 12 California health and environmental organizations calling on the agency to widely release a public health advisory on the dangers of mercury, distribute necessary materials to public and private health organizations, collect consumption and other data, and launch a multimedia campaign in multiple languages.
While we need to eliminate toxic mercury at its source in the long term, we need to aggressively warn people of the significant health risks of eating mercury contaminated swordfish and other seafood now. By informing consumers of the risks from mercury, as it has done with tobacco, California can prevent needless brain damage in its newborn babies and children.
Since the FDA has failed to warn consumers of the serious risk of mercury in seafood, it's up to the state of California to do so. Alerting the public about the dangers of mercury is the right thing to do. And the California Department of Health Services, the agency charged with protecting public health, is the right agency to do it.
The only way to achieve full enforcement of Proposition 65 is to immediately include canned tuna. The added bonus is that by protecting public health from mercury poisoning, we may simultaneously be helping to avert the extinction of endangered marine species such as the ancient leatherback sea turtle.
Andy Peri is a Marine Species Campaigner with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in Marin County, which works to protect endangered species and to increase understanding of links between lifestyles and ocean health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.