Close to Home: Dangers of contaminated fish

By Doug Israel and Dr. Lynette McLamb

Researchers in China have released a new study that highlights the negative effects of mercury contamination of seafood on the fertility of both men and women.

While the impacts of mercury contamination have been known for years, this new data signals a public health threat that may be more serious than we have been lead to believe.

This disheartening news comes at the same time that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control is in the process of soliciting comments on future regulations that aim to reduce the amount of mercury that enters the environment.

While we believe that this is a step in the right direction, the level of risk that is associated with consuming contaminated seafood requires that the state get tougher by eliminating the use of mercury in the manufacturing process and taking more aggressive steps to alert the public about the health threats posed by mercury contamination of swordfish and other seafood species.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 10 women of childbearing age has levels of methylmercury in her blood that may put her fetus at risk of neurological effects.

Eating seafood is the primary means of mercury poisoning in humans. Mercury gets into the environment through myriad industrial processes, most notably through coal-burning energy plants that release it into the air, though it eventually settles into our oceans and lakes. It then accumulates up the aquatic food chain, reaching highest levels in large predatory fish, such as swordfish and tuna.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the following advisory in 2001: "swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tile fish (also known as golden snapper) contain enough mercury to affect the central nervous system and harm developing fetuses. Pregnant and nursing women, women who might become pregnant and young children should not eat these fish."

While the federal warning is beneficial, the failure to include tuna in the advisory, and effectively inform the public on a broad scale, has generated criticism from both Congress and consumer organizations.

Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences has recommended lowering the level of exposure currently accepted as safe and encouraged publication of a more comprehensive list of contaminated fish species. Unfortunately, these recommendations have largely gone unheeded by federal bureaucrats and have not been acted upon adequately enough by our decision-makers in Sacramento.

While we may be growing immune to the Bush administration's continuing failure to place human and environmental health before corporate interests, we expect a much more aggressive approach from Gov. Gray Davis and the state Legislature and bureaucracy.

In addition to developing regulations, the Department of Substances Control must work toward fully eliminating the use of mercury in the state as well as implementing strict enforcement measures to make sure that the disposal of mercury-containing products is safe.

The California Department of Health Services has already prepared an excellent pamphlet alerting pregnant women and women of childbearing age of the dangers of consuming seafood that is high in methylmercury, but they admittedly have no resources to print the pamphlet and translate it into languages other than English.

It is imperative that Gov. Gray Davis make California a leader in protecting the health of its citizens from mercury poisoning by fully funding efforts to distribute this pamphlet as broadly as possible. Several states have already issued advisories, and it is past time for California to take a leading role.

Meanwhile, all consumers, especially women of child-bearing age, pregnant women and children should not wait for government action. For the sake of human and ocean health, consumption of large predatory fish should be avoided.

Doug Israel is the Mercury Awareness Project Director with the Turtle Island Restoration Network ( in Marin County. Lynette McLamb is an internist in San Francisco whose practice includes women's health care.