Ignoring Science, San Francisco Considers Mercury Warning

Published December 1, 2005

Despite the findings of University of Rochester scientists that eating even high-mercury-content fish causes no ill effects in humans, the city of San Francisco is considering a law requiring mandatory mercury warnings on all seafood sold in the city.

Under the proposed ordinance, merchants would be required to post warning signs in English, Spanish, and Chinese asserting that eating fish is a health risk. The warning is not in response to a particular spike in mercury levels but is motivated instead by some activists’ assertions that even low levels of fish consumption are dangerous.

“San Francisco’s ordinance is a groundbreaking initiative that should be replicated across California and nationwide,” Eli Saddler, an attorney for the activist group gotmercury.org, told the San Francisco Chronicle for an October 4 article. “More consumers will protect their families from the dangers of eating fish contaminated with mercury by educating people in three languages and by strengthening enforcement of Prop 65, which requires warning signs.”

Calls Fish ‘Cancer-Causing’

California’s Proposition 65 requires businesses that sell cancer-causing products to notify customers of such threats. Activists’ attempts to apply Prop 65 to fish markets are highly controversial. Scientific studies, such as the 15-year study of Seychelles island children, dispute the assertion that even significant consumption of fish is linked to medical problems.

Nevertheless, environmental activists already have sued major grocery chains who do business in California for refusing to place Prop 65 warnings on seafood.

“I personally visited every Safeway store in San Francisco and found that almost none of the stores adequately warned their customers,” Saddler asserted on the activist Web site Green Media Toolshed. “We applaud San Francisco’s action to protect its citizens by requiring multilingual signs and enforcing better compliance. This is the right thing to do.”

Warnings Counterproductive

“The proposed warnings are scientifically inappropriate,” countered Gilbert Ross, medical director for the American Council on Science and Health. “Mercury in seafood is not the health hazard the advocate groups claim it to be.

“Moreover, from a public policy point of view, these warning labels are cropping up on everything,” Ross added. “When you warn about everything, people pay attention to nothing. As a result of such unnecessary warnings as the one being contemplated by the City of San Francisco, warnings that truly are appropriate are more likely to be ignored, and public health will suffer.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.