News flash: The global panic about mercury in fish can be traced back to a single scientific study whose participants got nearly all their dietary mercury from eating whale meat — not fish. Hard to believe? Don’t take our word for it. In this month’s Environmental Health Perspectives journal, the author of that infamous study (fear-of-fish monger Philippe Grandjean) says so himself. And like environmental activists who have held his theoretical banner high, Grandjean fails to discuss the practical world in which ordinary people live (and eat). People who steer clear of whale meat — including pregnant women — are none the worse from tiny traces of mercury in the fish they eat. In fact, they’re generally better off eating as much fish as possible.Here’s Grandjean and his research team in their own words:

[T]he correlation between fish intake and methylmercury exposure is relatively low, due to the fact that whale meat, rather than fish, is the main source of methylmercury exposure . . . In the Faroe Islands, the health authorities issued an advisory that recommends women in fertile age groups to abstain from eating whale meat, and this advisory has resulted in decreased [mercury] exposure levels

Grandjean’s study from the Faroe Islands has done plenty of damage. It’s the basis for the hyper-cautionary U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Reference Dose” for mercury (the one with a ten-fold safety cushion built-in). This in turn spawned the federal government’s mercury advisory for childbearing women and small children. Without this advisory, which the Food and Drug Administration inexplicably joined in 2004, mercury activists at Oceana, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Consumer Reports magazine would never have had a fin to stand on.Still worried about mercury in fish? Don’t be. It’s the whale meat that’ll get you.