Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Sins Of Omission In The Mercury Scare Campaign

Commissioning a scientific study and then publicizing only the parts you like is difficult to defend. Yesterday the environmental groups Greenpeace and the Sierra Club flooded the news media with press releases (see here for an example) screaming that one in five American women exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Reference Dose” for mercury. Reality check: The mercury Reference Dose is not a safety limit, as it includes a 1,000-percent safety margin. And both Greenpeace and the Sierra Club played a sly game of “hide the science” with the news media, releasing barely half of their new study and leaving out pages that didn’t support their hyped message.

The twelve-page report, conducted by the University of North Carolina-Asheville’s Environmental Quality Institute (EQI) included a “summary and conclusions” section, although you wouldn’t know it from the Greenpeace and Sierra Club websites. Leaving out five offending pages, the groups advertised a truncated seven-page version as “the full report” and “the entire report issued by EQI.” (Emphasis added for irony.) We’ve put a copy of the actual full report on our website, which is identical to EQI’s copy — unlike the version promoted by the green groups that paid for the study. And just in case these activists try to cover their tracks and swap in the full report, we’ve kept a copy of their edited-for-the-reporters version.

What were they trying to hide? Well, the report’s conclusions say nothing at all about whether the trace levels of mercury found in women’s hair samples pose a health risk to anyone. One omitted page includes the conclusion that “the current results do not provide evidence of an increasing or a decreasing trend … in mercury concentrations for a given amount of fish consumption.”

Another omitted page noted that “the number of responses for races other than Caucasian was small.” Meanwhile, a more statistically sound study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1999 and 2002 studied a more diverse group of people. The result showed that just 5.6 percent of Americans (far from Greenpeace’s “one in five”) exceed the EPA’s “Reference Dose.” With the EPA’s ten-fold safety margin in mind, the CDC study found absolutely zero women whose mercury levels approached a level of real concern.

And just what is this “Reference Dose,” anyway? It’s represents a ten-fold safety cushion padding the mercury level that might actually be harmful to your health. And this higher level, the “Benchmark Dose Lower Limit” (at which negative health effect might occur), is itself based on a study of people in the Faroe Islands, whose dietary mercury comes almost exclusively from such all-American favorites as pilot whale meat. A similar study conducted in the Seychelles Islands, where the locals actually get their mercury from ocean fish, found no negative impact on islanders’ health.

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