This weekend National Public Radio listeners heard a Living on Earth story, prompted by the Center for Consumer Freedom’s FishScam.com website, about the growing debate over trace amounts of mercury in fish. (To listen to the broadcast, click here.) “You shouldn’t be bamboozled into thinking that you’re putting your health at risk by eating six ounces of tuna a week,” our research director told listeners. “It simply isn’t true.”
Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman was skeptical:
GELLERMAN: Now, you have studies that back this up?
CENTER FOR CONSUMER FREEDOM: Not only do I have studies that back this up, the EPA has them. The EPA knows the level of exposure that represents a hypothetical risk, but it adjusts that by a factor of ten to get what it calls a “reference dose.” And it’s this smaller number, this sort of hyper-cautionary number, that environmental advocacy groups often use in order to scare some Americans into believing that these tiny amounts of mercury in fish represent a health hazard.
We encouraged NPR’s audience to pay close attention to flesh-and-blood populations that eat a lot of fish:
CENTER FOR CONSUMER FREEDOM: Look at the population of Japan, for instance, that eats five to ten times as much ocean fish as we do. Seventy-four percent of the women of childbearing age in Japan right now are above the U.S. reference dose for mercury. Now I ask you, are their kids woefully inadequate in math and science and cognitive abilities? Or are their children out-performing ours in math and science? It seems to me that if there’s any real damage from the mercury, with all these fish that the Japanese people eat, we ought to be able to see it in their kids.
In its broadcast, Living on Earth included the chicken-little views of Center for Children’s Health and the Environment director Leo Trasande. Predictably, Trasande carped about the supposed “300,000 to 600,000 silent cases of methyl mercury toxicity each year” among U.S. children. (Click here for a myth-busting dose of reason on this point.) When Gellerman brought up Trasande’s claims, we noted that he has yet to “actually produce a case of mercury poisoning from fish. There have been none actually documented in the United States pretty much ever.” Gellerman immediately agreed that “the Center for Consumer Freedom has a point.”
Living on Earth also interviewed Chicago Tribune environmental writer Sam Roe, whose December series on mercury was a first-rate bit of fishy fear-mongering. Roe claimed “there were incredibly high levels of mercury in a variety of popular seafood” tested by his newspaper. But since the Food and Drug Administration’s mercury advisory has a built-in safety margin of 1,000 percent, every single piece of fish the paper tested is safe to eat.