Studies seem fishy to mercury experts
Written by The Capital Times   
Saturday, 21 October 2006 16:04

This was a grand week for fish eaters - especially fish eaters at high risk for heart disease. The reason: A study released by the Institute of Medicine concluded that the benefits of consuming seafood at least twice a week far outweigh the risks posed by mercury and other dangerous contaminants found in many fish species.

Another study, this one by researchers at Harvard, not only supported those findings but said that people who eat one to two servings of fish a week - particularly fish high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon - may cut their risk of fatal heart attacks by 36 percent (!) and their risk of death in general by 17 percent.

And the threats posed by mercury, PCBs and other toxins? Inconclusive, the studies said.

If all that sounds too good to be true, well, guess what? It probably is.

Or so suggests Eric Uram, a local mercury expert who groaned when I asked him about the studies this week.

"Seems like all they've done is added to the confusion" says Uram, a former Sierra Club representative - he's now a private consultant - who's spent the last couple years trying to alert the public about the alarming levels of mercury not only in certain fish but in the environment as a whole.

He's not alone. A recent story in Time magazine noted that a growing body of research suggests that exposure to medium to high levels of mercury can harm adults and children and can lead to everything from fatigue and tremors to brain and kidney disorders.

The Time story also noted that researchers testing song birds in the Northeast "have found creeping mercury levels in the blood of more than 175 once-clean species. Others have found the metal for the first time in polar bears, bats, mink, otters, panthers and more."

So why would researchers at the Institute of Medicine and Harvard downplay the risk of eating mercury-contaminated fish?

Uram says he's as bewildered an anyone. The studies also seem to send a contradictory message, he says, since they support Food and Drug Administration recommendations that women of childbearing age and children under age 12 avoid certain types of fish: shark, swordfish, tilefish and mackerel. And that they limit their intake of albacore, or white, tuna.

Uram believes that's sound advice for everyone. In addition, he says, fish lovers should consume no more than one meal a month of game fish (muskie, walleye, pike and bass) caught in Wisconsin waters.

In fact, as I noted in a previous column, Uram and other mercury experts feel so strongly about it that they've been urging the FDA and state governments to require all stores that sell fish to post mercury warnings on their display cases.

But while that campaign has been unsuccessful, Uram says several "health-minded" grocery chains - notably Trader Joe's and Whole Foods - have "seen the light" and are doing it on their own.

Uram, incidentally, is a devoted fish eater himself - but not, he emphasizes, because he thinks it will fend off heart disease, as the Harvard study suggests.

Keep in mind, he says, that a Finnish study just last year concluded that middle-aged men who eat a diet rich in fish tend to have higher levels of mercury in their bodies and, in fact, are more prone to heart attacks.

"So the jury's still out on that question," Uram says.

Until next week anyway.
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