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Charlie Tuna: Unsafe At Any Speed

The EPA and two doctors' groups have issued strong warnings about the dangers of eating mercury-laced fish. Then why is the White House working to loosen restrictions on mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants?
 
 
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Remember when fish was the healthy choice? Today, the pluses of seafood – being low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 oils – are offset by creepy mounting knowledge about how much pollution has become a part of most fish flesh. And, just when you may have been getting a handle on which fish are safe to eat, the seascape has once again shifted.

Updated federal guidelines released in March lowered the amount of albacore that pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children should consume in a week to one six-ounce serving. Now two groups have come out with their own set of more stringent rules about eating fish.

According to fish-eating guidelines released last week by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Society of Reproductive Health Professionals, children, and women who are either pregnant or considering getting pregnant should further restrict their fish intake, eating salmon, sardines, herring or bluefish only once or twice a month. The groups are raising concerns about these fish because they have high levels of PCBs, a class of chemicals that can cause serious health problems. The new, stricter guidelines also recommend that children under 12 altogether avoid several types of fish, including albacore tuna, which is now one of the biggest sources of Americans' exposure to mercury.

It's easy to roll your eyes – or panic – at the idea of more rules being imposed on what we should or should not eat. We already have E. coli and mad cow disease to think about, not to mention that whole perplexing business about carbs. But even the most determinedly relaxed eaters may want to think about how much fish they eat – especially if they are women considering having kids.

PCBs, which can cross the placenta and enter the fetal blood stream, can cause cancer, nervous system damage and disruption to brain development. These chemicals are plentiful in farmed salmon, the kind you now find in most restaurants or stores. According to a 2003 study done by the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization made up of independent scientists, farmed salmon purchased at grocery stores in Washington DC, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, had 16 times the PCBs found in wild salmon.

Mercury is similarly toxic to developing bodies. In high doses, the chemical can cause mental retardation and even death; in smaller doses, children's exposure – whether while in the womb, or directly from eating – can result in irreversible problems with memory, motor skills and learning capacity.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which issued the government's fish guidelines in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration, estimates that millions of women have been exposed to mercury above recommended levels. And, according to a 2000 National Research Council study that was commissioned by Congress, some 60,000 children born in the U.S. each year may have neurological problems as a result of mercury exposure.

The good news is that, after eating less fish, the amount of mercury in blood should eventually fall to safe levels. (Some PCBs, on the other hand, remain in the body permanently.) The key, according to mercury experts, is eating fish of any kind only twice a week and completely avoiding swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark, which both the feds and doctors' groups agree have so much mercury they should never be eaten.

Mercury and Coal

The bad news on the fish front, unfortunately, has the potential to outweigh the careful warnings of well-intentioned doctors and government scientists. Even as the Environmental Protection Agency and others caution about the dangers of polluted fish, the White House is working to undermine restrictions on coal-burning power plants, which are responsible for the premature deaths of 23,600 Americans each year, according to a June report commissioned by the environmental coalition, Clear the Air.

The power plants release the chemical into the air through smoke stacks. It falls into rivers, lakes and oceans, and, from there, mercury – actually a byproduct of mercury called methylmercury, created when microorganisms in water process mercury – accumulates in fish. But the Bush administration has proposed weakening efforts to clean up mercury emissions from 1,100 coal-fired power plants around the country.

Back in 2000, the Clinton administration declared mercury a toxic substance and was in the process of requiring owners of coal-fired plants to install millions of dollars' worth of equipment to reduce their emissions. The Bush administration, however, recently proposed its own rules. According to the White House website, its "Clear Skies" plan, if fully implemented, would reduce mercury emissions by 69 percent. But whatever reductions it would require are far less than those set by existing legislation. The Bush plan calls for an annual cap of 34 tons of mercury emissions by 2010, while the Clean Air Act already in place would limit industry output to 5 tons per year by 2008.

Why would the government ease restrictions on pollution that causes a serious health risk? The origins of the legislation point to one answer. The language of the Bush proposal to regulate mercury emissions was strikingly similar to that contained in memos drafted by a law firm representing coal-burning power plants, according to the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, there are strong ties between the White House and the energy industry that would benefit from the plan to loosen restrictions on mercury pollution.

Andrew Lundquist, who served as executive director of Dick Cheney's energy task force and the Vice President's energy policy director, is now a lobbyist representing a Wyoming coal-mining entity, among other energy companies, according to a Boston Globe report.

Relief may be in sight. After a period of public comment that ended June 29, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a final version of its mercury emission rules. And, with John Kerry promising to reverse any roll-backs of the clean air laws, environmentalists are looking to the November election as the best way to limit pollutants in fish. In the meantime, even rule-weary eaters would do well to follow the latest guidelines when it comes to seafood.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.