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Fishy FDA Warnings

Want some straight information about the harm posed by mercury being emitted from power plants? Don't ask the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's new rule regulating coal-burning power plants falls far short of what experts believe is necessary to protect public health. Written using key language provided by utility lobbyists, the rule is drawing criticism at a level not seen since the EPA withdrew its arsenic standards for drinking water three years ago. Opponents complain that the new rule leaves children vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury pollution.

But breathing polluted air is not the only way mercury is transmitted. Mercury pollutes water and thus the fish that swim in it, which involves another federal agency. And if you want accurate information on how much mercury you're getting in your tuna salad sandwich, don't ask the Food and Drug Administration. Even though the agency's own tests have found potentially harmful levels of this brain-damaging contaminant in canned tuna, the FDA still says tuna is safe, putting pregnant women and kids at risk.

Like the EPA, the FDA is also shortchanging public health in favor of business interests. The FDA is staying mum on tuna risk specifics because it meets regularly with representatives of the tuna industry to hone--or dull--its message to the public, says Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group.

Despite challenges from a number of environmental groups--and a scolding from the FDA's own Food Advisory Committee--the advice the agency gives women on eating tuna during pregnancy remains vague, even condescending. Moms-to-be seeking information will read this on the FDA's Web site:

"Tuna is one of the most frequently consumed fish in the United States. Mercury levels in tuna vary. Tuna steaks and canned albacore generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna. You can safely include tuna as part of your weekly fish consumption."

These guidelines tell us that Americans eat a lot of tuna, that some kinds of tuna have more mercury than others, and that it's OK to eat tuna every week while you're pregnant. Something's a little fishy here. It might all be true, of course; but how about some specifics? Say, a pregnant woman can eat one six-ounce can of chunk light tuna every couple of weeks, but should only treat herself to a tuna steak once a trimester?

The truth is that canned white or albacore tuna--the more expensive stuff--has much higher levels of mercury than the cheap stuff, chunk light. In fact, an analysis of FDA test results by the EWG found mercury levels in canned albacore exceeding those found in tilefish, one of the four species on the FDA's "do not eat during pregnancy" list.

Specifics are clearly needed. According to EWG, if every pregnant woman followed FDA guidelines on what's safe and ate one six-ounce can of albacore tuna each week, 99 percent would exceed safe mercury blood levels for their entire pregnancy.

It's not that the FDA doesn't have the information. The agency has done extensive testing of canned tuna and has a good idea of how much mercury the fish contains. Based on these figures and Environmental Protection Agency standards--which are actually designed to protect human health and can be tailored to individuals--it just takes a little math to figure out how much tuna a pregnant woman can safely eat.

Clearly mercury affects each of us differently. One in six U.S. women of childbearing age carries levels of mercury in her blood that could lead to fetal neurological damage if she did become pregnant, EPA scientists reported in February. If you are that one in six, it's particularly important for you to limit your intake of certain types of seafood if you're pregnant, thinking of getting pregnant or even of childbearing age. Body weight affects mercury levels too; people who weigh less will see mercury and other contaminants collect in their blood at a faster rate. The FDA's one-size-fits-all advice doesn't take any of this into account.

The FDA notes in an overview of the draft that the guidelines already been vetted by eight focus groups in four U.S. regions, and modified based on the focus groups' feedback "so that is more easily understood."

But in trying so hard to make its guidelines understandable to everyone, the FDA has made them meaningful to no one, and insulting to our intelligence to boot.

While we know that fish is good for women to eat during pregnancy--it's rich in nutrients that are good for both mom and baby--we also know that in our polluted world, seafood can contain lots of stuff that's bad for mom and baby too. People understand risks and tradeoffs, and need some concrete advice they can actually act on.

An independent FDA advisory committee agreed when it reviewed the draft, sending the FDA back to the drawing board to come up with something more specific--and more easily understandable to consumers. To date, the agency's still working on its advice.

EWG and a number of other environmental groups are stepping in to fill the tuna information gap. Environmental Defense just released comprehensive Health Alert charts on fish safety for adults and children that take into account levels of contamination with mercury, PCBs and other pollutants. The Natural Resources Defense Council offers people a six-month plan for lowering their mercury levels and a chart showing how much tuna is safe to eat per week based on your body weight. EWG has a tuna safety calculator on its Web site. The Children's Environmental Health Coalition also spells out fish safety specifics for kids and women of childbearing age and describes preparation techniques that can reduce PCB and dioxin levels in fish dishes. And the Mercury Policy Project is helping to lead the charge on this issue.

But the fact remains that most people--including pregnant women and the doctors advising them--will look to the FDA for information on fish safety. The agency needs to be up to the task. Let's hope that when FDA comes back from the drawing board this time around, which is expected to be soon, we'll see some real, useful advice on how to reap the benefits of fish during pregnancy, safely, and how to feed our children seafood without putting them at risk. And while we're at it, how about a rollback of the new EPA rule on mercury and a sincere effort by the White House to cut off mercury pollution at its main source: coal-burning plants.

Anne Harding is an independent journalist who writes on health, medicine and the environment.

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