FDA's Mercurial Fish Story

Mercury in Some Fish Could Harm Babies' Brains" blared The Associated Press last week. The FDA warned pregnant women and those of childbearing age about the alleged hazards of consuming fish that may contain high levels of mercury.

Unfortunately, the facts don't support the warning.

It seems the FDA is being used by the lame-duck Clinton-ites to force the incoming Bush administration to issue restrictive regulations on mercury emissions from electric power plants.

No one disputes the fact that mercury occurs naturally in the environment, and can be released into the air through industrial emissions. It can get into both fresh and salt water and then accumulate in the food chain.

Nor is there any doubt that mercury can have toxic effects — just like every substance, including water, sugar and salt. It's a matter of dose, though. And contrary to what the FDA says, the science available on the subject does not indicate U.S. fish eaters are in danger.

Two episodes of mass mercury poisoning support the idea that mercury causes harm to the nervous systems of unborn children. A number of Japanese children living near Minamata Bay in the 1950s were born mentally retarded and had other neurological problems after their mothers ate fish contaminated with high levels of methyl mercury.

No one knows exactly how much mercury the mothers consumed. But mercury levels in samples of the mothers' hair averaged 41 parts per million (ppm).

A second mass mercury poisoning occurred in Iraq in the 1970s when people consumed seed grain treated with a mercury-containing fungicide. Iraqi children suffered in many of the same ways as the Japanese ones at Minamata. Although maternal hair levels of methyl mercury ranged from 1 ppm to 674 ppm, many children of Iraqi mothers with hair concentrations exceeding 100 ppm developed normally.

But these episodes, however frightening, are of little relevance to fish lovers in the United States.

The average level of mercury in hair that is attributable to seafood consumption in the U.S. is 0.12 ppm, according to a 1997 study — far below the levels associated with harm to children's nervous systems.

In July 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a study of mercury levels among expectant mothers in the Seychelles islands. In that study, hair samples collected when the mother gave birth found mercury concentrations ranging from 0.5 ppm to 27 ppm, with no adverse effects in their children. A smaller study of Faroe Islands children reported only "subtle" (invisible?) effects at the same levels of exposure.

The NAS said the studies "provide little evidence" that children are affected appreciably by low-dose prenatal exposure to mercury.

This body of evidence linking low-level mercury exposure with harm to children is so weak that U.S. regulations are based on extrapolation from the Iraqi poisoning data. The Environmental Protection Agency's current "safe" level of mercury exposure is based on a maternal hair level of about 11 ppm — way above the level anyone is likely to accumulate from eating fish.

Even the intake of mercury among women of child-bearing age who consume the most fish is about three times below the level at which risks are thought to begin.

So what's the FDA alarm all about?

It's not news that the Clinton EPA spent much of the last eight years doing the bidding of extreme environmental activists. With little regard for science, the EPA repeatedly jammed expensive regulations of dubious merit down the public's throat. But Congress barred the EPA from regulating mercury emissions from electric power plants — until the NAS reported on the matter.

Apparently respecting only the report's issuance and not its content, Clinton's EPA moved in the eleventh hour to bind the Bush administration into issuing regulations.

The EPA said in mid-December it would draft and implement regulations to limit mercury releases from power plants starting in 2004. EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed at the time that "mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes, and contaminating fish [and] poses real risks to ... children and developing fetuses."

Only two weeks later, the same agency said it did not know how much, if any, mercury in fish comes from power plants, and commissioned a five-year research program on the subject.

Last week's warning from the FDA can only be explained as intending to boost the EPA effort to force the Bush administration's hand on these power plant regulations. It's yet another case of government agencies terrorizing the public about the food supply for political gain.

Hopefully the inauguration of President George W. Bush will mark the beginning of the end of such roguish conduct by regulatory agencies.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junkscience.com.