A coalition of environmental groups led by Oceana and the Mercury Policy Project released the results of a major, 22-state mercury testing project today, confirming that store-bought swordfish and tuna contain levels of mercury that the federal government has determined may be hazardous to human health, particularly children.
The results released in Fair Warning: Why Grocery Stores Should Tell Parents About Mercury in Fish were more comprehensive than any recently released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and included samples purchased at popular supermarket chains such as Safeway, Shaw’s, Albertsons and Whole Foods. Swordfish and tuna samples bought in grocery stores in 22 states were tested at the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Quality Institute between July 7 and August 11.
An average mercury concentration of 1.1 parts per million (ppm) was found in the 24 swordfish samples tested. That level exceeds the FDA Action Level of 1.0 ppm for commercial fish, which is the amount at which the agency can take legal action to remove a product from the market. Two samples, including one from Maine and one from Rhode Island, contained more than 2 ppm, twice the FDA Action Level. The testing results also suggest that a typical shopper buying swordfish in a grocery store has a 50 percent chance of buying a swordfish steak with mercury levels considered unsafe by the FDA.
Mercury concentrations in 31 samples of fresh or frozen tuna steaks averaged 0.33 ppm, a level comparable to that of canned albacore tuna, a fish specifically targeted for limited consumption by women of childbearing age and children in the 2004 joint advisory from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The second page of the same advisory has similar consumption advice for tuna steaks.
“The results clearly demonstrate the need for signs in our supermarkets to communicate the FDA advice because people are unknowingly purchasing these high mercury fish, and women of childbearing age and children may be eating them in spite of the FDA’s warning,” said Jackie Savitz, director of Oceana’s Seafood Contamination Campaign. “Americans have a right to know what’s in their food, and posting warning signs in grocery stores where these fish are sold is a simple, common-sense solution that fulfills that right.”
In addition, the groups called on the FDA to improve its testing program. The Fair Warning project analyzed and reported on six times more swordfish than the FDA has in the past five years combined, and eight times more tuna steaks than the FDA has in the past eight years, according to the FDA’s database.
"Pregnant women and parents of young children need point-of-sale warnings to make informed choices about the fish they purchase," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "Based on our test results a 44-pound child eating six ounces of tuna weekly would be four times over the EPA's reference dose, and a 120-pound woman eating just six ounces of tuna weekly would be eating one and one-half times EPA's reference dose." The EPA reference dose is an estimation of the amount of methylmercury that, if consumed, would not be expected to cause an appreciable risk of adverse health effects over a lifetime.
To protect and inform the public about the risks of mercury poisoning, the coalition produced these recommendations:
The final recommendation was offered in response to FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford’s recent opposition to the State of California’s efforts to protect families by requiring mercury warning labels on canned tuna in grocery stores. CA Attorney General Bill Lockyer maintains that the FDA does not have the authority to preempt the state’s law.
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that has been linked to learning disabilities and developmental delays in children, as well as damage to the heart, nervous system and kidneys in adults. Mercury enters the environment via pollution from power plants, chlorine production facilities, waste incinerators and other sources. Forty-five states have issued advisories warning sensitive populations about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish, and in 2004, the FDA and the EPA advised women of childbearing age and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, and to limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and fresh tuna to 6 ounces per week.
“While mercury pollution in tuna and swordfish is a global problem, mercury pollution in local waterways has resulted in fish consumption advisories in local rivers and streams, as well as the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Senior Scientist, Dr. Beth McGee. “As a result of EPA’s decision not to require strict limits on mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 22 states have sued EPA, and CBF is advocating for tougher state laws that will reduce pollution from these plants and other sources.”
Fish were collected from: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin. The fish were bought in major grocery stores, including Shaw’s, Whole Foods, Albertsons, Sav-a-Center, Winn-Dixie, Dominick’s, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Genuardi’s, Safeway and Carrs.