The science world is buzzing with the latest news from the Seychelles, a group of over 100 islands in the Indian Ocean whose inhabitants eat fish. Lots of fish. In fact, per capita they eat nearly ten times as much fish as Americans, and — naturally — the levels of mercury in their bodies are often higher than ours. But at this weekend’s conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a University of Rochester professor of pediatrics announced that the children of Seychelles women who maintained high-fish diets during their pregnancies are perfectly healthy. Not only did they perform well on developmental tests, but they actually outperformed kids whose mothers had eaten less fish.
“From all the reports we had seen about mercury and its impact on development,” said Rochester’s Dr. Philip Davidson, “we thought we would be able to show how bad it was for children. But we didn’t find it at all.“
“It was a shock,” he added yesterday in Newsday. “We didn’t believe it. The kids are almost 16 and we still have yet to see a problem.” This despite the fact that an average pregnant woman in the Seychelles has about 7 parts-per-million of mercury in her hair. That’s a lot of mercury, even compared to what the Sierra Club and Greenpeace found in their recent, over-hyped study of Americans. The green groups’ average measurements ranged from 1.83 parts-per-million down to just 0.12 (click here and see pp. 6-7).
The ongoing Seychelles Child Development Study has been tracking the same 789 children since they were six months old. Scientists chose the Seychelles because its citizens average more than one meal of fish every day, making their health a good indicator of any dangers that might be lurking for Americans who eat a similar diet. In the study’s early years, Dr. Davidson told the media that what his team found in the Seychelles “is applicable to every woman, every man, and every child around the world who eats ocean fish.“
The collective silence from the environmental activist community — the mercury scaremongers who have been frightening Americans with hyped tales of brain-damaged children and endangered pregnancies — has so far been deafening. Only one green-group spokesman has weighed in so far, a New York Public Interest Research Group analyst who cautioned Newsday: “We have seen problems in other studies.“
The principal “other” study that competes with the Seychelles research for media attention is being carried out in the Faroe Islands, a North Atlantic chain whose inhabitants’ mercury levels are similar to their counterparts in the Seychelles. But Faroe Islanders get most of their mercury from eating whales, not fish. And whale meat is typically contaminated with a wide range of other pollutants, making the effects of mercury nearly impossible to isolate.
So unless you’re fond of lunching on Moby-Dick-salad sandwiches, the news from the Seychelles is encouraging. Reacting to Dr. Davidson’s presentation, one University of Kansas nutrition professor told Med Page Today that scare stories about eating fish may have caused overreactions among American women, “most of whom don’t eat enough fish as it is.”