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Why Is the FDA Saying It's OK to Eat Seafood 10,000 Times Over the Safe Limit for Dangerous Carcinogens?

FDA not only downplayed the risk of contamination, but ignored staff members who proposed higher levels of contamination protection.
 
 
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Ever since the largest offshore oil spill in history spewed into the Gulf of Mexico last year, independent public health experts have questioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's efforts to effectively protect Americans from consuming contaminated seafood.

Now a recent study by two of the most tenacious non-government scientists reveals that FDA Gulf seafood "safe levels" allowed 100 to 10,000 times more carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in seafood than what is safe. The overarching issue the report addresses is the failure of the FDA's risk assessment to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals, such as young children, pregnant women and high-consumption seafood eaters.

In an effort to pinpoint how the FDA decided to set its acceptable levels for PAH contaminants in Gulf seafood, researchers at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which performed the study -- published in the leading peer-reviewed environmental health journal Environmental Health Perspectives -- also scoured documents wrested from the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act.

These include internal emails and unreleased assessments that suggest the FDA not only downplayed the risk of contamination but also that the EPA, and even members of FDA staff, had proposed higher levels of contamination protection, which in the end were ignored.

In vehemently denying the NRDC study's findings, the FDA argues that its chemical risk assessments are inherently biased "on the side of safety" and that setting higher protective health measures for PAHs in Gulf seafood would actually "do more harm than good."

Robert Dickey, director of the FDA's Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory, who's taken the lead for the agency in responding to the NRDC report, elaborated in an email to AlterNet, "Overly conservative estimates would lead you [to] remove a great deal of food from our refrigerators and pantries than is needed."

In an interview with AlterNet, the study's lead researcher, NRDC staff scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, said that such a response from the FDA "begs the question of whether or not it was a political versus a scientific decision" because the agency "does not provide scientific evidence" for the claim that being more health protective somehow carries an increased risk of doing harm.

She added, "PAHs in food have been evaluated and standards set in the European Union without jeopardizing anyone's nutrition."

AlterNet confirmed that the FDA indeed has provided no scientific evidence to back up this claim in either its formal response to the NRDC report or in addressing AlterNet's questions.

More broadly, the FDA declined to directly explain the email correspondence the study's researchers obtained in the FOIA request. They reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency, and even members of the FDA's own staff, questioned the FDA's seafood safety risk assessment criteria for protecting the most vulnerable populations, particularly Gulf residents.

Other documents received via the FOIA request show that the FDA considered multiple other potential calculations and criteria where more health protective risk assessments were considered but never followed.

Asked if these documents, along with the NRDC study's findings, belie the FDA's chief claim that their risk assessments are biased "on the side of safety," Dickey responded, "The seafood safety risk assessment was developed in extensive and open collaboration between FDA, EPA, CDC, NOAA, and public health experts and toxicologists from all five Gulf states impacted by the oil spill."

He added, "During that process many factors and calculations were considered before the final version was agreed on by all participants."

Dickey also claims that the FDA has "built into our assessments, a more than 100-fold safety factor that gives us confidence that sensitive populations are protected."

 
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