NRCM: Warnings Needed Where Fish Is Sold, Clean-Up Still Needed
AUGUSTA – Today, the Natural Resources Council of Maine released the results of a major mercury testing project which included samples of swordfish and tuna taken from Shaw’s in Portland ME. The swordfish and tuna steaks from Maine supermarkets contained the most mercury contamination of similar fish tested in 22 states. In response to the results, the Natural Resources Council of Maine sent a letter to Shaw’s urging that the store post warnings at the fish counter and that they join us in supporting efforts to remove mercury from consumer products.
“In this test Maine came out number one in mercury-contaminated fish,” said Jon Hinck, toxics project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “There is a warning here: buyer beware. We call on supermarkets to post warnings about mercury in fish and on the state to make a plan to accomplish the region-wide goal of virtual elimination of mercury exposure.”
“This study should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who routinely eats swordfish or tuna, as well as for the supermarkets that sell it,” said Hinck.
The nation-wide testing, coordinated by the New England Zero Mercury Campaign, confirmed that store-bought swordfish and tuna contain levels of mercury that the federal government has determined may be hazardous to human health, particularly children. Results confirmed the need for action to eliminate mercury pollution and to adequately warn the public about the dangers of mercury in store-bought fish.
An average mercury concentration of 1.1 parts per million (ppm) was found in the swordfish tested nationwide. The mercury level in the swordfish purchased at Shaw’s in Portland, Maine was found to be 2.328 ppm. That level exceeds the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Action Level for commercial fish, which is the limit at which the agency can take legal action to remove a product from the market. The samples from Maine were more than twice the FDA Action Level.
The groups reported that mercury concentrations in samples of fresh or frozen tuna steaks averaged 0.33 ppm. The mercury level in the tuna steak purchased at Shaw’s in Portland, Maine was found to be 0.684 ppm. This level is comparable to that of canned albacore tuna, a fish specifically targeted for limited consumption by women of childbearing age and children in the 2004 joint advisory from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Buried in the second page of the same advisory is similar consumption advice for tuna steaks.
How much fish a person can eat before exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) recommended limit, called a reference dose (RfD), depends on body weight and mercury content of the fish. A 44 pound child regularly consuming six ounces of fresh/frozen tuna (with 0.33 ppm mercury) per week would be exposed to 4 times the EPA reference dose for methylmercury, while a 120 pound woman would be exposed to 1.5 times the reference dose.
Fish were collected from 22 states: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin. The fish were bought in major grocery stores, including Shaw’s, Whole Foods, Albertsons, Sav-a-Center, Winn-Dixie, Dominick’s, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Genuardi’s, Safeway and Carrs. The samples were tested at the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Quality Institute between July 7 and August 11.
In 1998 the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG/ECP) set a goal of “virtual elimination” of mercury emissions. Maine adopted this region-wide goal of mercury elimination. Since that time, Maine has made great strides to eliminate mercury pollution emanating from within state borders, however, some steps still need to be taken, including:
- Enact legislation to ban the use of mercury in button cell batteries;
- Enact legislation to improve rates of recovery of mercury thermostats with an extended producer responsibility program;
- Achieve reductions in the use of amalgam fillings in dentistry, including by requiring the State’s insurance carriers to provide full coverage to state employees for mercury-free fillings;
- Investigate mercury releases from burning of fuel oil, sewage sludge and crematoria. Where the data warrant, develop plans to reduce these emissions.
The fish sampling and analysis released today is more extensive than any recently performed by the FDA which has only released testing data for four swordfish since 2000 and four tuna steaks since 1997, according to an FDA database. The groups called on the FDA to improve its testing program.
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that has been linked to learning disabilities and developmental delays in children, as well as damage to the heart, nervous system and kidneys in adults. Mercury enters the environment via pollution from power plants, the incineration of products that contain mercury and other sources. Forty-five states have issued advisories warning at-risk populations about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish, and in 2004, the FDA and the EPA advised women of childbearing age and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, and to limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and fresh tuna to 6 oz. per week.