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Report: Fish-mercury risk underestimated

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A report issued Thursday says millions of pregnant women and their fetuses are at risk of serious health problems from exposure to mercury in fish.

The report, prepared by the Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, calls on the Food and Drug Administration to upgrade and strengthen its current mercury safeguards.

The FDA in January recommended that shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish not be eaten by pregnant women and women of childbearing age who might become pregnant. It also recommended that nursing mothers and young children steer clear of these fish.

But the new report, "Brain Food: What Women Should Know About Mercury Contamination in Fish," contends the recommendations do not go far enough to protect women and children from mercury contamination.

It urges the FDA to add Gulf coast oysters and eight more types of fish to the list, including tuna, sea bass, halibut, marlin, pike and white croaker. In addition, the report says canned tuna, mahi-mahi, cod and pollack should not be eaten more than once a month.

"The widespread contamination of fish with mercury has given its reputation as 'brain food' a new and disturbing connotation," said Environmental Working Group analyst Jane Houlihan, principal author of the report. "Mercury is toxic to the developing fetal brain, and exposure in the womb can cause learning deficiencies and delay mental development in children."

Under the FDA's current recommendations, pregnant women can safely eat up to 12 ounces per week of cooked fish not on the risk list. But Richard Wiles, the Environmental Working Group's senior vice president, said even that amount could cause problems.

"Hundreds of thousands of women would get unsafe exposures to mercury if they followed the FDA's advice and ate freely of all fish in the food supply except the four that they've prohibited during pregnancy," Wiles said.

He said mercury contamination is equal to lead contamination as a public health issue affecting children.

"It's a major public health failing on (the FDA's) part," Wiles said, "and we feel quite strongly that they need to aggressively look into the problem of mercury contamination of fish, expand the list of fish that women need to avoid and get this information out to the medical community and to women in a much more aggressive way."

Wiles said he has discussed the report's findings with the FDA.

Reached for comment, an FDA official told CNN that "based on the review of scientific data, FDA stands by our consumer advisory issued in January."

The Environmental Working Group says there are some fish considered safe for pregnant women, including farm-raised trout and catfish, shrimp, fish sticks, flounder (summer), wild pacific salmon, croaker, mid-Atlantic blue crab and haddock.

The Environmental Protection Agency also issued a national advisory in January, but it covered only non-commercial, freshwater fish caught by sport fishermen in local waters. They recommended limiting fish consumption to one meal a week of 6 ounces of cooked fish for adults and 2 ounces for young children.

According to the EPA, states are primarily responsible for protecting their residents from contaminated noncommercially caught fish. Almost 68 percent of state-issued consumption advisories are a result of mercury contamination in fish and shellfish. Last December, the Clinton administration announced that mercury emissions from power plants pose a significant health hazard and proposed regulations to reduce them by 2004. An EPA official now says that decision is "under review" and that "no decisions have been made yet."

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment, but in the United States more mercury enters the air through industrial emissions, the biggest source being coal-fired power plants. Once there, the mercury enters waterways and accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.

Fish and other seafood products are the main source of methylmercury toxicity in humans, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable.

The report is based is based on the examination of 53,000 records of mercury test results in fish from seven federal, state and other government sources.

Mercury warnings on the rise in Connecticut
January 15, 2001
Government agencies warn some women not to eat certain fish
January 12, 2001
EPA bans many toxins in Great Lakes
November 8, 2000
Mercury report met with optimism
July 12, 2000

Environmental Working Group
Public Interest Research Group
Food and Drug Administration Home Page

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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