Some activists seem to work extra hard to shred their own public credibility. At the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Madison, Wisconsin, the Mercury Policy Project (MPP) is leading a coalition, including Oceana, that just can’t shoot straight. Yesterday the activist groups released mercury-testing data from 19 pieces of fish bought in Madison. Nineteen was also, oddly enough, the number of people who showed up at MPP leader Michael Bender’s “alternative” conference to hear the news. But the graph distributed with the results, titled “Mercury Content of Sampled Fish,” has 30 bars on it, not 19. So which bars don’t belong?
We compared each bar with the activist groups’ mercury data, and it appears that the 11 tallest bars — the ones that go (literally) off the chart — don’t actually correspond to any fish. But Bender ducked our repeated requests for an explanation of what those bars represent.
Of course, thanks to the ten-fold safety cushion included in the Food and Drug Administration’s mercury advice, these bars would have to be nearly six times as high before they would represent mercury levels known to pose a human health risk. And if mercury in fish is really a health hazard, it would make sense to test a lot more seafood before arriving at that conclusion.
Back at the main mercury conference, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist and activist Kathryn Mahaffey also appeared. In 2004 Mahaffey famously hyped mercury fears by declaring — without her employer’s support — that 630,000 U.S. children are born “at risk” of mercury toxicity every year.
At this event, speakers introducing Mahaffey before at least two presentations have publicly noted that she’s not appearing as an EPA representative, but “as a private citizen.” And Mahaffey’s poster presentation (co-authored with Deborah Rice) about the EPA’s mercury Reference Dose also carried a unique disclaimer: “The opinions in this poster are those of the authors and do not represent policy of the U.S. EPA.” (Finally! A mercury warning label we can get behind!)
While not in attendance, Tommy Thompson was a big topic of conversation at the conference yesterday. In addition to being a former Wisconsin Governor, Thompson is also the immediate past U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). And this week in a Wisconsin State Journal opinion piece, he steamed some conference-goers by declaring: “No scientific study has ever found Americans with unsafe mercury levels from eating ocean fish and seafood.”
Thompson’s closing remark — that failing to tell Americans to “eat more fish” is “a disservice to our nation’s public health” — put him in good, credible company. Considering Dr. Louis Sullivan’s similar public statements, two of the three most recent HHS Secretaries are now advising Americans that fish is a health food, despite the insignificant traces of mercury that have always been there.