Mercury study downplayed
Fish consumption remains safe for most, a state doctor says
A national study that found higher-than-average mercury levels in Hawaii participants is not surprising given Hawaii residents' higher-than-average consumption of fish, a state doctor said yesterday.
But that does not mean that most people should be worried about curtailing fish consumption, said Dr. Linda Rosen, deputy director of the state Department of Health.
"We know that mercury levels in humans are almost always related to fish consumption," Rosen said. "And we know that concern for mercury exposure (from eating fish) is limited to pregnant and nursing women and young children."
A study released this week by the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville found mercury levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended limit in one in five women of childbearing age tested.
The Sierra Club and Greenpeace are publicizing the study results to draw attention to mercury pollution from power plants.
High mercury levels in pregnant and nursing mothers have been shown to have potentially damaging effect on the nervous systems of developing fetuses, Rosen said.
It is important to know, Rosen said, that someone with twice the EPA-recommended level would still be far below the levels at which studies showed possible effects on unborn children.
And she cautioned against the conclusion that emissions from power plants are the source of mercury in open-ocean fish. For example, Rosen said, tests of the mercury content of yellowfin tuna in 1971 showed mercury levels very similar to today.
Rosen said the bottom line is that if pregnant and nursing mothers and young children follow state Health Department recommendations for fish consumption, they should be well within risk levels.
Jeff Mikulina, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, said just because mercury is naturally occurring in seafood does not mean people should not reduce mercury pollution from burning fossil fuels.
"Our interest here is can we control the man-made sources of mercury pollution," he said.
Both Rosen and Mikulina said they would welcome additional study of Hawaii residents and the effects of mercury.
"I really feel further studies are needed," Rosen said, "and Hawaii is an ideal place."
GUIDELINES ON FISH FOR AT-RISK GROUPS
The Hawaii Department of Health offers fish-eating guidelines for pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children. The department recommends that these groups:
» Not eat kajiki (Pacific blue marlin), shark and swordfish (shutome).
» Limit consumption of ahi (bigeye, tombo and yellowfin tunas), ono (wahoo) and opah (moonfish) to once every two weeks.
» Limit consumption of aku (skipjack tuna), canned tuna, cod (butterfish), grouper, halibut, mahimahi, nairagi (striped marlin), orange roughy and pollock to no more than once a week.
On the Net
» For more information, see the guide: http://www.hawaii.gov/health/family-child-health/wic/pdf/fishsafety.pdf
» The Environmental Quality Institute mercury study is available online: www.sierraclub.org/mercury