FDA Pooh-Poohs Mercury-Laden Fish

by Matthew Freeman

December 13, 2008

CPR Member Scholar Catherine O’Neill has posted a blog entry on Marlerblog, discussing the conflict reportedly under way between the FDA and the EPA over whether to stop warning pregnant women against eating mercury-laden tuna.


Relying on studies that EPA staff scientists describe as, “scientifically flawed and inadequate,” FDA has forwarded to the White House a draft report arguing that the nutritive value of fish outweigh the dangers from mercury consumption.


After noting the shaky science undergirding the FDA’s case, O’Neill points out that the argument rests on the assumption that mercury-contaminated tuna is a regrettable but unchangeable fact of life, and that pregnant women have only two choices – eat or don’t eat mercury-laden fish. But mercury pollution isn’t a meteorological phenomenon. It’s the result of pollution. A better alternative, she argues, would be if the government did something meaningful to prevent the mercury pollution that makes the fish dangerous to eat.


She writes:

FDA has framed the public health question in terms of “balancing” the “risks” and “benefits” of fish consumption, given mercury contamination. In fact, fishing industry representatives such as the National Fisheries Institute have long worked to craft the debate in just this manner. But mercury contamination ought not be considered a given. By framing the problem in this way, the FDA buys into the notion that there is nothing to be done about the underlying problem of mercury pollution. In fact, much could be done – but the Bush Administration, in particular, has thwarted efforts to address mercury pollution at virtually every turn. Its “Clean Air Mercury Rule” is a case in point. Instead of requiring coal-fired utilities to reduce their mercury emissions by roughly 90 percent before 2008, as authorized by the Clean Air Act, the EPA worked to diminish and delay any required emissions reductions from these sources. It set up an emissions trading program that would theoretically require a 70-percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2018 (EPA’s own models show that the promised 70-percent reduction wouldn’t actually be realized until as late as 2030). Indeed, EPA went to great lengths to give this reprieve to the utilities, enlisting a novel interpretation of the Clean Air Act – one that the D.C. Circuit roundly rejected. If our environmental agencies did their job, women and children wouldn’t be faced with having to “balance” the risks and benefits of eating fish. As I have said elsewhere, tuna shouldn’t come with a side of mercury.

In an email to me Friday afternoon, Professor O’Neill expanded on the point in her blog entry, writing:

In all of this, we see the perils of an approach that relies on what I call “risk avoidance” to address environmental contamination. Rather than regulating the sources of pollution so that risks are prevented in the first place, risk avoidance measures shift the burden to the people whose practices or lifeways – such as eating fish – expose them to these contaminants in their environment. It asks these people to “avoid” the risks by changing their ways – for example, by reducing their fish intake. This approach surely saves the industries that were supposed to have been regulated some money, since they will no longer have to control their pollution. But risk avoidance is an approach that is ineffective, short-sighted, and unjust. Ultimately, we have to ask: do we wish to shape a world in which we must refrain from eating the fish, drinking the water, working and playing outdoors, and undertaking a host of other heretofore ordinary, healthful, and even cherished human activities?

Professor O’Neill took up the same issue in an op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year.  It's also worth a look.  And there's much more from Professor O'Neill and other CPR Member Scholars on mercury issues, here.


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Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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