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Science and Health:
The Mercury Story
More on This Story:
Mercury in Fish

In America one-in-six children born every year have been exposed to mercury levels so high that they are potentially at risk for learning disabilities and motor skill impairment and short-term memory loss. That type of mercury exposure is caused by eating certain kinds of fish, which contain high levels of the toxin from both natural and man-made sources such as emissions from coal-fired power plants. One government analysis shows that 630,000 children each year are exposed to potentially unsafe mercury levels in the womb. If the government and its scientists know about the mercury problem, why do so many people continue to be poisoned?

Over recent years NOW has examined how the influence of the tuna industry on the FDA may be putting Americans and their children at risk for mercury poisoning. Tuna, widely known for its health benefits, is one of the most popular foods on grocery store shelves. And, in 2000, FDA draft advisories presented to focus groups warned women not to eat a lot of canned tuna during pregnancy because it contains levels of mercury that can harm developing fetuses and nursing babies. In March 2004, the FDA and the EPA issued the first ever joint advisory on this topic, What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish.

The State of California has gone a step further. In 2003 the California Attorney General's office filed suit to force supermarkets, restaurants and tuna companies to warn customers that tuna (fresh, frozen and canned), swordfish and shark sold in their markets contain mercury. The suit was based on the state's Proposition 65 which requires consumer warnings for substances on a toxics list. The state also provided special warnings advising women and children to "Limit their consumption of other fish, including tuna." And they further advised that "tuna steaks and canned albacore have higher levels of mercury than canned light."

In January 2005, 16 major restaurant chains sued by the state agreed to settle and put up warnings. And a few supermarkets have voluntarily posted them at fresh fish counters and in the frozen food section. The US Tuna Foundation is challenging the lawsuit saying "canned tuna products are safe…." Citing the above-mentioned mercury advisory by the Food And Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency that states "fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet." Find about more about mercury in fish below.

Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury. How does this element get into our fish supply? Mercury occurs both naturally and from man-made sources. Some of it can be traced to coal-burning power plants. Smokestacks release toxic mercury emissions which rain down into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Bacteria convert the mercury to a form that's easily absorbed by insects and other small organisms. Mercury moves up the food chain as small fish eat the small organisms and big fish eat the smaller fish. The highest concentrations accumulate in large predators such as shark, swordfish and tuna...some of America's favorite fish.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and very young children are cautioned against excessive consumption of these fish. Read the FDA consumer advisory for pregnant women about the risks of mercury in fish. The FDA also offers a chart on mercury levels in seafood species.

Until the 1950's, the problems that can occur with excessive mercury intake were not well-known. However, at that time, an epidemic hit fishermen and their families in villages on Japan's Minamata Bay. People whose diet was primarily seafood showed signs of brain damage; some were even fatally stricken with disease and seizures. The investigation linked the health problems to methylmercury poisoning from a local chemical plant that was discharging organic mercury into the bay. The villagers were getting sick from eating the fish that had absorbed the mercury. (Learn more about The Poisoning of Minamata.)

In 1969, the FDA first set an action level for total mercury in fish; 0.5ppm (part-per-million) was considered the maximum safe limit. (Action levels represent the limit at or above which FDA will take legal action to remove a product from the market.) In 1979, the action level was raised to 1ppm. In 1984, there was another major change. The FDA stopped measuring on a basis of total mercury and instead started checking levels in terms of methylmercury only. In 1998, the FDA stopped widely testing for mercury in fish.

Around the world, there is concern about mercury contamination through fish, but specific recommendations vary. For example, Health Canada advises consumers to limit their consumption of swordfish, shark or fresh and frozen tuna to one meal per week; for young children and women of child-bearing age, the recommended limit is one meal per month. Health Canada's guideline is 0.5ppm total mercury content — more stringent than in the U.S. Britain's Food Standards Agency is advising pregnant and breastfeeding women and women who intend to become pregnant to limit their consumption of tuna to no more than two medium-size cans or one fresh tuna steak per week.

Even within the United States, women are hearing different advice from different sources, especially where tuna is concerned. The EPA's methylmercury guideline is a recommended limit on mercury consumption based on bodyweight, also known as a "reference dose." EPA's methylmercury reference dose is .1 micrograms/kg body weight per day. In July 2000, the National Academy of Sciences found the EPA's reference dose as "scientifically justifiable" for protecting most Americans.

So exactly how much mercury a 45 lb. child would ingest by eating one 6 ounce can of tuna per week, and how does that compare to the EPA's reference dose? Take a look at the following calculations:


  • Multiply child's body weight by EPA's reference dose.
  • Convert 45 pounds to kilograms = 20.45 kilograms
  • 20.45 kilograms x .1 micrograms per kilogram per day
EPA RECOMMENDED LEVEL = 2.05 micrograms per day = 14.35 micrograms per week.


  • Multiply amount of fish by average mercury level for chunk white albacore.
  • Convert 6 ounces to grams = 170 grams 170 grams X .31 ppm  (or micrograms per gram)**
MERCURY INGESTED = 52.7 micrograms per gram  


  • Divide 52.7 micrograms by 14.35 micrograms = 3.7


In December 2003, the FDA began circulating a draft advisory warning women who are pregnant, nursing, or who might become pregnant about the dangers of mercury in seafood. Critics like the Environmental Working Group objected to the advisory's vague guidance on tuna, and subsequently filed a legal challenge, charging that the advisory did not meet standards for accurate government science established by the Data Quality Act.

In February 2004, a new analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that "about 630,000 children are born each year at risk for lowered intelligence and learning problems caused by exposure to high levels of mercury in the womb," nearly double the previous EPA estimate.

Read more about mercury and tuna from the Mercury Policy Project and from the U.S. Tuna Foundation.

Also, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project Mercury Calculator allows users to gauge mercury exposure from seafood by entering a log of how much fish they consume.

**Average for Chunk White Canned Tuna. Yess, Norma J. "US Food and Drug Administration Survey of Methyl Mercury in Canned Tuna," Journal of AOAC International, Vol. 76, No. 1, 1993, pp. 36-38.

Sources: Seafood Network Information Center; Canadian Food Inspection Agency; Food Standards Agency; Environmental Working Group

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