Alaska Disputes EPA Mercury Guidelines

Published June 1, 2005

Alaskan health officials are telling state residents they can safely exceed federal health advisories for eating fish caught in the state. Four officials of the Epidemiology Section of the Alaska Division of Public Health published an article on the topic in the March 2005 issue of The American Journal of Public Health, claiming the federal government’s precautionary approach to mercury may be causing state residents more harm than good.

EPA Warns Against Fish Consumption

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a joint advisory in 2004 recommending young children and women of childbearing age limit their exposure to environmental mercury by eating only 12 ounces of fish–approximately two meals–per week.

The recommended level is a precautionary one, well below the level at which blood mercury levels would be high enough to threaten human health.

Alaska Encourages More Dietary Fish

Alaskan state health officials, however, strongly disagree with the EPA/FDA recommendation. They point out that mercury concentrations in native fish are quite low, and that Alaskans, on average, safely eat between 10 and 60 ounces of locally raised fish each week.

All Alaskans, including children and pregnant mothers, are being encouraged to eat as much locally raised fish as they desire. Not only is such fish safe, officials say, but fish is an extremely healthy food that carries numerous nutritional benefits.

As reported in a March 1 Anchorage Daily News article, one of the journal article’s authors, environmental toxicologist Scott Arnold, said he’s concerned people who depend on subsistence foods in rural parts of the state will follow the federal government’s more restrictive standards and miss out on important health benefits of dietary fish.

The Daily News further noted that Dr. Jim Berner, who has studied mercury levels in native Alaskan women and their babies, supports the state’s message that Alaskans should not limit their fish consumption. The fish Alaskans eat is generally low in mercury and high in nutrients that support fetal development, Berner told the Daily News.

Nutritionist Chronicles Fish Benefits

In an April 6 article for the diet, fitness, and healthy living Web site, eDiets’ chief nutritionist Susan Burke addressed the mercury debate on a more national level.

Burke observed that although people should limit their intake of larger fish–such as kingfish, shark, swordfish, bluefish, and mackerel–smaller fish have far lower mercury levels and should be eaten frequently for good health.

Burke noted the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend Americans double their current consumption of oily fish such as trout and salmon. “These and other fatty fish contain optimal amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory anti-oxidants correlated with a decreased risk of heart disease and some cancers,” Burke observed. “Researchers are not just treading water, the evidence is clear.”

Burke noted the Framingham Nurses’ Health Study, conducted in association with the Harvard School of Public Health, shows nurses who eat at least two meals of fish per week are significantly less likely to develop heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times per week. According to Burke, the AHA states, “Fish is a good source of protein without the high saturated fat found in fatty meat products.”

Other Health Benefits Observed

Observed Burke, “A new study published in the January 2005 Archives of Internal Medicine confirms the consumption of tuna or other broiled or baked fish is associated with a lower risk of stroke in the elderly, while eating fried fish or fish sandwiches is linked to a higher risk. Baked, broiled, grilled, or poached fish provides a heart-healthy balance of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils and little of the unhealthy saturated oils.

“Fish is a good source of protein and contains an optimal balance of protein, vitamins, and micronutrients,” Burke summarized. “If one of your health goals is weight loss, fish contribute valuable protein with very little saturated fat. For men who have special needs for zinc for prostate health, fish supplies a generous dose.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.