When the Chicago Tribune printed a story this month advising pregnant women not (we repeat, not) to remove fish from their diets, it wasn’t exactly front-page news. But it should have been. Sixteen months ago, the Tribune ran a high-profile and irresponsible week-long series titled "The Mercury Menace." Reporters Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne warned ominously that Chicagoans were playing "tuna roulette" by eating fish "tainted" by "dangerous levels of mercury." The National Press Club gave them an award for their (mis)reporting. It’s time for the Tribune to send that trophy back.
The good news is that the Tribune has officially reconnected with reality, reporting on a landmark study in which "[t]he less seafood a pregnant woman ate … the greater her risk was of having a child with more verbal, social and behavioral problems." The not-so-good news is that neither Roe nor Hawthorne could be bothered to write about findings that so clearly blew their "Mercury Menace" series out of the proverbial water. (A Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter did their job for them.)
But we’ll give credit where credit is due. At least one editor at the Tribune (the one handling letters) saw a glaring inconsistency between Roe and Hawthorne’s reporting and level-headed science about the harmless, trace levels of mercury that have always been in fish.
Our letter, which ran last weekend, noted:
[N]ow that mercury science has matured, we’re learning that the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh any hypothetical risks, even for those considered the most vulnerable. What a difference 16 months can make. Americans are becoming reacquainted with the idea that fish — mercury traces and all — is actually a health food.
Knee-jerk fish fears, especially during pregnancy, can have negative public health consequences far worse than anything our national mercury scare has sought to help us avoid. Environmental groups spinning tales of brain-damaged children and endangered pregnancies should give their mercury campaigns a rest, read the scientific literature and issue us all an apology.