MERCURY BUILD-UP IN THE SEAS
WHERE IT COMES FROM AND WHAT IT'S DOING
TO THE FOOD CHAIN
by Katherine Czapp
piece is published with the permission of the
Weston A. Price Foundation
All truth passes
through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second,
it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being
in 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced dramatically
lower safety limits for mercury in fish and has plans to extend
its list of fish to avoid, pending tests that could reveal mercury
in the fish above the new "safe" limits. Mercury is
a well-established potent neurotoxin, and researchers have described
its harmful effects, particularly on the developing foetus, for
decades. By following the latest FDA guidelines, consumers --
especially pregnant women and parents of young children -- can
make better choices when including fish in their diets; but the
complex story behind mercury contamination of our marine and freshwater
food supply reveals many unsavory sources of pollution as well
as a conflict of interest in our so-called watchdog government
lowered its previous "safe" standard from 1 part per
million (ppm) of mercury in fish to the threshold of 0.2 ppm recommended
three years ago by the National Academy of Science (NAS) based
on their 2000 study on mercury.
has been clear since the infamous 1950s case of women in Minimata,
Japan who gave birth to children with severe birth defects because
of mercury-tainted fish in their diet, that exposure to high levels
of mercury can be harmful. Subsequent studies have revealed that
even low-level mercury exposure threatens normal development of
the foetus. Problems with vision, hearing, language and motor
skills are typical of mercury-related neurological damage. The
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that over 60,000
US children are born each year at risk for life-long problems
because of dangerous blood levels of mercury in their mothers.
Young children, whose brains are still developing, are also at
risk of being harmed as are adults, who may suffer from cognitive,
motor or immunological problems that are difficult to diagnose
until mercury exposure is considered. Researchers are only now
beginning to explore the life-long deleterious effects of mercury
exposure. Some recent studies indicate that men with elevated
mercury levels may suffer more heart attacks. Animal studies suggest
that low-level mercury exposure produces autoimmune diseases and
other immune system anomalies.
FISHY GOING ON
why did the FDA wait until only this year to issue stricter safety
limits for fish? For years, the National Academy of Sciences,
public health activist groups and individual scientists have requested
complete and specific information about the dangers of mercury
the FDA issued a warning for pregnant women and young children
to avoid eating tilefish, swordfish, shark and king mackerel because
they contained dangerous levels of methyl mercury. Further, the
FDA cautioned the same group of consumers not to eat more than
14 ounces of any type of fish per week. However, the FDA did almost
nothing to make sure that Americans learned of this important
information, either by implementing their promised public education
program, or by printing warning labels for packages of fish or
posting warnings on restaurant menus. What's worse, the FDA mentioned
nothing at all about the dangers of consuming tuna, ignoring the
urging of consumer groups and its own scientists. Although the
amount of mercury in canned tuna is considered "moderate"
when compared to other fish, many people, including children,
eat canned tuna regularly, even up to a can per day, so the potential
for mercury to reach dangerous levels is great.
Working Group (EWG), an organization well known for alerting consumers
to the dangers of pesticides, obtained over one thousand pages
of transcripts on seafood and mercury from FDA-sponsored public
"focus groups" in Denver, Boston, and Calverton, Maryland
held in October and November, 2000. The transcripts reveal several
instances in which FDA scientists directly contradict agency guidelines
and admit to participants that the then-current "safe"
levels of mercury in fish, including tuna, are not protective
of the unborn. These guidelines advise against anyone eating more
than one and a half 6-ounce cans of tuna per week.
from other publicly available FDA documents the EWG discovered
that while drafting the final language for their fish advisory,
the highest officials from the FDA met privately three times that
fall with executives from Chicken of the Sea, Starkist, Bumble
Bee, the US Tuna Foundation and the National Food Processors Association.
These "big fish" from the seafood industry obviously
had more influence than the FDA's own scientists and Advisory
Committee, or the NSA, for in the final version of the FDA's advisory,
published on January 12, 2001, methyl mercury warnings had been
watered down, and there were no references at all to tuna.
we will wait in vain for the seafood industry to warn consumers
of potential dangers in its own products. But the FDA had completely
abdicated its role as public defender by allowing the tuna industry
to take advantage of a study on the benefits of fish and omega-3
fatty acid consumption to promote tuna as a healthy choice for
pregnant women: According to a US Tuna Foundation press release,
". . . this new study adds to the long list of startling
health benefits scientists believe omega-3 fatty acids provide
to pregnant women and small children. The most convenient, economical
source of omega-3s for moms and kids is, quite simply, canned
clear that mercury in fish poses health problems, and that citizens
are left, once again, to shoulder the responsibility of educating
themselves in order to protect their families' health in the face
of duplicitous government agencies. But the closer one looks at
the tragedy of our poisoned fish supply the more interwoven are
the many threads from seemingly unrelated sources that lead to
an ecosystem out of balance. There is no way to ignore the fact
that we all share one earth, one biosphere in which our transgressions
against nature, either from ignorance or greed or malice, eventually
affect us all.
depositions into earth's oceans and waterways continue apace and
there are several sources of contamination that may not at first
seem obvious. Numerous studies have fingered emissions from coal-burning
power plants as the main source of mercury pollution in many parts
of the world. A 2002 study from the University of Santa Cruz,
California illuminates the mechanisms of one such pollution pathway.
This study found that mercury from coal emissions in China ends
up in rainwater on the California coast. Atmospheric mercury travels
around the globe as a gas and must be oxidized into charged ions
that will attach themselves to water molecules before they are
washed out as rain. Ozone, abundant in industrial and urban smog,
plays a key role in this oxidative process. When the gaseous mercury
blows into San Francisco Bay from Asia, the local smog is there
waiting to "enrich" it and set in motion the process
of introducing more mercury into the food chain via rain onto
surface waters. In other words, it is not enough to curtail mercury
emissions alone; local pollution levels directly influence the
rate of deposition.
the same report noted that much of California's mercury contamination
is the result of mining operations during the Gold Rush when miners
used large amounts of liquid mercury to extract gold ore. These
operations left enormous areas of contaminated sediments along
the watershed that ultimately drains into the San Francisco Bay.
Researchers in the study also found that long-abandoned mine sites
in coastal regions still continue to leach mercury into rivers
and streams that end up eventually in the San Francisco Bay. State
officials have issued advisories warning against consumption of
fish that inhabit more than a dozen bodies of water in California,
including San Francisco Bay.
mining has also played a role in the mercury contamination of
the Amazon River, which ultimately empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The 1970s gold rush in the Amazon basin attracted thousands of
itinerant gold miners who used mercury to extract gold ore. An
estimated 100 to 150 tons of mercury per year have entered the
environment via dumping or evaporation; many studies cite "astronomical"
levels of mercury in soils and rivers near mining areas.7
were initially puzzled when mercury levels equal to those in mining
districts were found very far downstream (400 km) from active
mining sites. Scientists from the University of Quebec, who have
been studying the Amazon basin since 1992, contend that the source
of most of the contamination is a natural result of millennia
of volcanic action. Compared to the soils of Quebec, which are
the result of glaciation about 10,000 years ago, soils in the
Amazon are much more ancient, perhaps more than one million years
old. This is a very long time for mercury to accumulate to substantial
levels. Yet why was the mercury suddenly leaching from the soil?
measured riverbank sediments for mercury levels in small increasing
increments and discovered that the most recent sediments contained
1.5 to 3 times the amount of mercury compared to those of 40 years
earlier. The timing of the mercury increases fits well with the
huge colonization of the area initiated during the 1960s by Brazil's
National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform. Through
this program, tens of thousands of families relocated from the
poorer regions of north eastern Brazil to the Amazon basin. Most
of these families turned to farming, and cleared more than 2.5
million hectares of Amazon forest using "slash and burn"
methods. While most people are aware of the perils of deforestation
in terms of global warming and depletion of protective ozone,
only now are scientists beginning to understand that the consequent
erosion of soils contributes to worldwide mercury contamination.
"When you have forest cover, this mercury is extremely stable
in the soils," explains one of the researchers. "There
is hardly any release to the aquatic ecosystem. The mercury is
bound to clay, organic matter, humic acids, and so on." Without
the forest cover, exposed soil is washed into waterways as regularly
as it rains. Once in contact with bacteria in the rivers, inorganic
mercury is converted to methyl mercury and thereby introduced
into the food chain.
researchers are helping local populations respond to the mercury
contamination by advising the consumption of only herbivorous
fish. For the long term, however, different means of land use
are required—not an easy prospect in a region lacking abundant
continues to appear in places and via means that scientists have
not predicted. Two studies in the March 15, 2002 issue of Environmental
Science and Technology describe the phenomenon of "mercury
sunrise," an event first described in 1998 in the Arctic
north. During a span of only five months during the polar spring
each year, the northern-most coast of Alaska receives more than
twice the amount of mercury that falls during an entire year on
the north eastern coast of the US. This phenomenon also occurs
on the southern polar region as well, and researchers estimate
that from 50 to 300 tons of mercury are dumped on both poles annually.
sunrise" occurs in the presence of ultraviolet light, open
water and active sea ice, all of which have been increasing at
both poles in recent decades. When the sun finally rises after
the long polar winter, it triggers a chemical reaction that causes
vaporized atmospheric mercury to rain down onto the snow packs
where it can be acted on by bacteria and then enter the food chain.
According to one of the research teams, these new findings shed
light on the rising levels of mercury in Arctic sea birds, seals
and beluga whales.
the same researchers who studied the mercury sunrise phenomenon
in remote polar locations also led a team that found high levels
of methyl mercury in gas venting from municipal landfills much
closer to home. In the July 7, 2001 issue of Science News, Steve
E. Lindberg of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee
demonstrated that interred mercury-containing wastes, including
medical wastes, fluorescent bulbs, batteries and old latex paint,
are acted on by the same bacteria that methylate inorganic mercury
in bodies of water, and that the methyl mercury then enters the
air via the venting pipes in the landfills. His findings helped
to explain the presence of methyl mercury in air and rain, which
had confounded scientists prior to the landfill venting discovery.
Lindberg plans to initiate inventories of landfill emissions,
especially of older ones containing the most abundant stores of
mercury-containing wastes. He also calls for technological means
of trapping the methyl mercury before it enters the atmosphere.
Preventing the problem by excluding mercury-containing wastes
from landfills would be a vigorous first step, but one that is
unlikely to be implemented given the convoluted politics and tangled
bureaucracies of waste management.
stupeyfying and inexcusable source of mercury contamination is
the US military's toxic war on the earth. We seem to have entered
an era of "permanent war" with US bombardment commonplace
throughout the planet and the military's never-ending need to
consume and pollute growing like a cancer. According to Bob Feldman,
reporting in the March/April, 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense,
"the Department of Defence is the world's largest polluter,
producing more hazardous waste per year than the five largest
US chemical companies combined." The two largest offenders
are Washington's Fairchild Air Base, which produces the most hazardous
waste among military bases -- 13 million pounds in 1997 alone
-- and Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base, which emits the greatest
amount of toxics -- over 600,000 pounds in the same year.
2001, the Military Toxics Project and the Environmental Health
Coalition issued their report, DEFEND OUR HEALTH: A People's Report
to Congress, with details on the Pentagon's war against the earth.
The list of contaminants emitted from military bases from coast
to coast, from Alaska to Hawaii to Puerto Rico, includes pesticides,
solvents, petroleum, lead, mercury and uranium. A 1999 report
by the Pentagon's own Inspector General documents pollution at
US bases in Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Greenland, Iceland,
Italy, Panama, the Philippines, South Korea, Spain and Turkey.
And since the Pentagon runs its bases as "federal reservations,"
they operate above the law both at home and in the host countries,
where the full extent of contamination cannot be ascertained by
local authorities until after a base is closed.
around the globe are calling attention to target-range bombardment,
abandoned munitions and radioactive waste which are part of the
ongoing poisonous legacy of the US military. The tiny island of
Vieques, just a short ferry ride from the main island of Puerto
Rico, has become a symbol of independence as it struggles to exist
in the midst of the US Navy's War Zone. Citizens of Vieques should
be enjoying life in a beautiful Caribbean paradise; instead 45
percent of them have excessive blood levels of mercury. According
to epidemiologist Dr. Carmen Ortiz Roque, the only known source
of mercury contamination in Vieques is US Naval exercises. Predictably,
cancer rates are high among Viequenses, along with other debilitating
diseases and birth defects.
the Navy began reporting to the EPA on heavy metals released into
the waters of the impact areas near Vieques. Measurements showed
at least 20 substances exceeding boundaries set by the Clean Water
Act, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, boron, cyanide and hexavalent
chromium. Further, the Navy admitted in 1999 to illegally firing
263 rounds of depleted uranium on Vieques; the same radioactive
armaments used in the US bombings of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and
are not the only species under siege at Vieques. Coral reefs and
at least 13 endangered species face extinction if bombing and
toxic contamination continue. The Navy, however, goes on contemptuously
firing a whole host of live weapons into the ocean, both within
the Vieques firing range and on the high seas in a range extending
200,000 square miles from Vieques, almost to the coast of Venezuela.
The Pentagon is now promoting a bill in Congress that would exempt
military exercises from environmental regulations such as the
Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and laws that protect endangered
Viequenses have mounted many valiant protests against Navy despoliation
of their home and local ecology, joined by many international
supporters. These voices of protest have either been ignored or
violently put down by the FBI and US Federal Marshals.
administration's request for 399.1 billion dollars for the Pentagon
in 2004 includes 16.9 billion dollars for the Department of Energy's
nuclear weapons activities. The aim is to gradually restore nuclear
warhead production to Cold War levels. Aside from the horrors
that could be unleashed by the use of this bristling array of
nuclear armaments is the deadly pollution that results from their
manufacture. According to Nuclear France: Materials and Sites,
the US uses lithium hydride for boosted fission warheads and lithium
deuteride for the fusion stage in thermonuclear warheads. "The
greatest threat to the general population and to the environment
is indirect. The production of lithium traditionally requires
a great deal of mercury, and the manufacturing plants have generated
considerable pollution by this heavy metal."
our focus to the dinner plate, we will find some guidance regarding
safer types of fish to eat. Several sources recommend a rather
short list, including summer flounder, wild Pacific salmon, croaker,
sardines, haddock and tilapia. Of course when choosing fish, mercury
is certainly not the only contaminant to consider, so this list
may be bigger or smaller depending on what kinds of fish are available
in your vicinity. Fresh water species like catfish and trout may
contain lower levels of mercury, but are often heavily contaminated
are also certain foods that can help the body release mercury
stored in tissues. Several years ago a researcher studying a possible
connection between chronic bacterial infections and heavy metals
in the body, found that some patients released mercury into their
urine after eating Vietnamese soup containing cilantro (Coriandrum
sativum). This effect has been replicated in other studies, although
scientists have not yet determined exactly which constituents
in cilantro have mercury-chelating effects. As a preventive, then,
cilantro can be eaten, fresh and raw, as a regular part of the
diet to orally chelate not only mercury, but lead and aluminium
to the Marine Technology Society, brown seaweeds, such as kelp,
contain fucoidan and algin, which have been shown to remove lead,
mercury, cadmium, barium, tin and other heavy metals from tissues.
Seaweeds also help remove radioactive isotopes from the body.
Using seaweeds both as a condiment and at least several times
a week as a vegetable (so that you consume a half-cup serving)
is necessary for chelating action to take place.
it weren't for universal pollution and over-fishing, we could
enjoy our fish dinner in peace! While ignorance is certainly not
bliss, as readers of this journal well know, knowledge ought to
empower its seeker. And although the struggle for a clean, healthy
food supply often seems a contest between David and Goliath, the
outcome of that Biblical confrontation, after all, was the diminutive
David. In this continuing struggle, there are, will be and must
be many heroes of David's moral stature.
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