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Point of View: Mercury scare hurts low-income kids

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
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 bathwater.

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 check.

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 panic.

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 victims.

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.


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