Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Day Two: Mercury Conference Meets Media Reality-Check

Oddly, yesterday’s big news about mercury and fish didn’t come out of Madison, Wisconsin, where academics are gathered for an international conference on “Mercury as a Global Pollutant.” It was found in The Washington Post, where columnist Sally Squires asked seven scientists for their verdicts on the oft-heard mercury-in-fish-tales. The common-sense and fish-friendly verdicts from all seven experts — hailing from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an environmental group, and universities in North Dakota, New York, Massachusetts, and Ireland — left some Madison conference-goers scratching their heads and others downright defiant.

A few notable highlights:

Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Walter Willett: “[Seafood’s health benefits] are likely to be at least 100-fold greater than the estimates of harm, which may not exist at all.”
Retired NIH biochemist Dr. William Lands: “[T]here is no evidence that methylmercury in seafood causes a problem.”
Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Dr. Gina Solomon: “Even the higher-mercury-containing fish, if they are not eaten frequently, are not a big concern.”
University of North Dakota scientist Dr. Nicholas Ralston: “[L]imiting fish consumption during pregnancy may cause the very harms that everyone involved has been working to prevent.”
University of Rochester pediatrician and neurologist Dr. Gary Myers: “[T]he entire population of Japan also has methylmercury levels that are above the Environmental Protection Agency’s reference level… and they don’t seem to be having any problems with mental deficits.”

News of the Post feature spread fast in Madison (we handed out 400 copies ourselves) and reactions were mixed. At least a half-dozen scientists broke with their usual decorum to deride the article with foul language. And Sierra Club program director Eric Uram, busy promoting “alarming” mercury readings of 19 Madison fish (a small sample compared to the 142 fish in our new report, “The Flip Side of Mercury“), refused to let us share the Post article with the attendees of an activist event held in a nearby hotel.

On the other hand, after conference participants heard a morning panel declare that mercury in fish is “a worldwide concern” and the fish-eating public was being “adversely affected by exposure to mercury,” they were invited to register their concerns on a bulletin board outside the auditorium. By day’s end, at least seven copies of the Post story had been tacked there with push-pins (and removed, one by one, by conference staff).

One of the day’s more interesting exchanges saw Dr. Ralston challenging the conference’s official panel about the likely impact of selenium on mercury exposure. After the chairwoman questioned the idea “that selenium is protective for mercury toxicity,” Ralston rose to remind the 1,200 attendees that “selenium has been demonstrated to have a protective effect against mercury toxicity in about 300 studies,” adding that more discussion was needed about “the Seychelles and Faroes as an example of the mercury-selenium molar relationship.” (See page 13 of “The Flip Side of Mercury” for more on that topic.)

Another interesting moment came during a presentation by Cornell University’s Dr. Barbara Knuth on the importance of effectively “framing” discussions about seafood and health. Knuth included at least seven slides featuring CCF work, reading aloud from many of the articles on (click here, here, here, and here for examples). Showing the cartoon below about fish’s “hypothetical mercury risk,” Knuth quipped: “Heck, when I prepare my fish, I cut off the tail. So — no mercury risk.”

[click here to read about Day One]
[click here to read about Day Three]
[click here to read about Day Four]

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