Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2003 / 21 Kislev, 5764

Diana Zuckerman

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Consumer Reports

Do we need to give up tuna? | As if we weren't confused enough about what is good for us and what isn't, the government is now warning us that tuna can be dangerous for children and pregnant or nursing women. They are advising them to eat less than 12 ounces per week (approximately 2-3 servings).

How can this be? Haven't we been told repeatedly that tuna and other fish are good for us?

The news is actually even worse. The Food and Drug Administration just doesn't have the nerve to tell us that pregnant women should eat less than one 6-ounce can of white (albacore) tuna each week. Instead they are urging us to eat a mix of different kinds of fish every week. Apparently that is code for "don't eat tuna more than once a week."

The risk of one of America's favorite foods is caused by mercury, which is spewed by power plants into our air and streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. In the water it becomes methylmercury, a toxic substance that is consumed by fish. When those fish are eaten by children or pregnant women or nursing mothers, they can harm the developing nervous system of children, causing learning disabilities or other problems.

Pregnant mothers can expose their unborn child to mercury when they eat almost any fish, but the levels are higher in the largest fish, such as tuna. Nursing women can pass methylmercury to their newborns through breast milk. Young children who eat a lot of fish can also be harmed, because in addition to being smaller they are more vulnerable to mercury.

Two years ago, the FDA issued a warning urging pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to avoid eating shark, swordfish, tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), and king mackerel because they contained dangerously high levels of methylmercury. The FDA "advisory" also warned pregnant women and nursing mothers not to consume more than 12 ounces of any kind of fish per week.

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What the FDA did not do was publicize their warning. They also neglected to mention that fresh tuna and canned white tuna are moderately high in mercury. Canned light tuna has much less mercury, and is safer. Canned white tuna is so high in mercury that pregnant and nursing women should eat less than one can each week. Children should eat even less.

Most Americans eat less than one can of tuna each week, but some of us eat tuna a few times a week. It's easy, it's inexpensive, and we thought it was good for us. Mothers will tell you that if their children like a food, they often want to eat it everyday. It comes as a shock to find out that for pregnant women and children, the harm can be greater than the benefit.

At a public meeting a few days ago, some experts expressed concerns that Americans would stop eating fish entirely if they heard that tuna could be harmful to children and pregnant women. One Harvard expert suggested that it might be better not to warn Americans about the risks of mercury in fish because people might overreact, and that would be bad for the public health.

I have more confidence in adults to understand that most fish are good for us, even though some are not. And that fish that may be dangerous for children and pregnant women are perfectly safe when eaten in moderation by everyone else.

So here's the bottom line: many fish are good for us, but some are potentially dangerous. Pregnant women, nursing women, and even women who might become pregnant in the near future have to be careful. Young children are also at risk. Choosing canned light tuna means you can eat more of it than canned white tuna. Tuna steaks or tuna in sushi is at least as high in mercury as canned white tuna.

The rest of us have little to worry about unless we eat a lot of fish. To avoid mercury, look for smaller fish and seafood, such as salmon, shrimp, blue crab, flounder and haddock. Fish sticks and farmed trout and catfish are also low in mercury and therefore safe to eat several times a week.

Why has it taken so long to get this information to the American public? If it seems fishy, there's a good reason. FDA documents show that the tuna industry has repeatedly urged the FDA to water down the warning, and these requests were unfortunately more persuasive than the National Academy of Sciences, which estimated that every year 60,000 children are born at risk for learning disabilities and other neurological problems due to methylmercury exposure in the womb. And meantime, President Bush is planning to reduce safeguards on mercury pollution, which would make matters worse.

I'm glad that the FDA is finally warning everyone about the risks of tuna and other fish, and that the media are helping to get the word out. But those of us who want to eat tuna and other fish need to think about environmental policies and not just what's for dinner. If we want to safely eat more fish, we need less mercury in our air and water.

Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, a Washington think tank. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families