EPA Says Mercury Levels in Fish Are Too High

Published January 1, 1998

In a report issued December 19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has raised alarms over mercury levels in fish and the risks faced by humans who consume it. The report has been widely interpreted as evidence that the agency plans regulatory action to lower mercury levels in fish or to encourage removing from the marketplace fish whose mercury levels EPA finds objectionable.

The agency contends that mercury levels deemed acceptable by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are five times too high, suggesting that fish consumption under such circumstances could pose a risk to human health.

Taking issue with EPA’s findings, Mike Gough, director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute, said the agency “can point to no adverse health consequences from eating such fish.” Moreover, “EPA also ignores studies of populations around the world that eat up to 14 fish meals weekly, have mercury levels that are twice as high as the WHO guidelines, and suffer no adverse health consequences,” Gough pointed out.

“Fish is high in protein and low in saturated fats,” Gough added, “and a growing body of evidence indicates that eating fish lowers risks of heart disease.” “It is an important source of nutrients during pregnancy. But EPA appears willing to toss these benefits aside in its zeal to combat hypothetical risks that somehow have been missed by FDA and WHO, the agencies with primary responsibility for food safety.”

In Gough’s view, “EPA also administers a blow to poor people who will have to bear most of the burden of reduced fish consumption.” He noted that officials of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, writing in Science magazine, point out that restrictions on fish consumption have already affected the health as well as the social and economic fabric of poor communities that depend on fish as a dietary mainstay. “They already live a marginal existence; this will make it worse,” Gough observed.