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Point of View: Mercury scare hurts low-income kids
By David Martosko
October 01, 2008
If you're tuned in to all the heated discussion about fish
and mercury, you've absorbed at least one basic message from
environmental groups and the federal government: "Our children
are at risk."
Guess what? They're right. But not the way they thought.
Americans generally don't understand how overblown the
mercury hype really is. They still don't realize that every
federal government fish advisory includes a 1,000 percent
safety cushion. They don't comprehend that today's canned tuna
contains the same inconsequential levels of mercury that it did
the first time tuna was canned.
And nobody is telling pregnant women that if they swear off
fish, they could be throwing their babies out with the
This month at the Center for Consumer Freedom, we published
a report offering the first real assessment of the mercury
scare's effects on public health. Get ready for a major reality
Because of exaggerated mercury warnings from the government
or environmental groups, more than 250,000 U.S. children from
low-income households were born at risk of having abnormally
low IQs in a recent seven-year period. Here's a quick summary
of the facts from our report, "Tuna Meltdown."
According to ACNielsen, 4.4 million U.S. households earning
$30,000 or less completely stopped buying canned tuna between
2000 and 2006 - the peak years of the activist-driven mercury
For low-income Americans, canned tuna is the only affordable
source of omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and sea bass aren't in
their budgets. Pregnant women in these households ate no fish
at all. Their unborn children completely missed out on the
benefits of omega-3s.
A landmark 2007 study published in The Lancet found that
pregnant women who don't get enough omega-3s have children who
are 29 percent more likely to have stunted IQs. (Only the
mothers who ate more fish than our federal government
recommends had high-performing kids.)
Trace levels of mercury in commercial seafood aren't a
realistic health hazard for anyone, including pregnant women
and their babies. North Americans simply don't eat enough fish.
The well-documented health benefits of eating fish far outweigh
any hypothetical risks.
Yes, I said "hypothetical." The medical literature contains
no cases of fish-related fetal mercury toxicity and there have
been zero cases of adult mercury poisoning related to eating
commercial fish in the United States. The next time Oceana or
the Environmental Worrying Group dusts off their mercury road
show, someone should ask for a head-count of actual
As our research shows, the only real harm associated with
mercury in today's seafood occurs when pregnant women let bogus
fish fears (and point-of-sale mercury warning signs) get the
better of them.
Flawed government seafood consumption guidelines and
exaggerated activist warnings are hurting poor children.
Unlike activists' tall tales of mercury-endangered
pregnancies, this is quite real. It's time everyone started
talking about it. Loudly.
David Martosko is director of research at the Center for
Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C.