Mercury Myths

Published December 15, 2005

Dear Editor:

I hate fish, but with half-a-century of experience as an environemntal scientist and my recent completion of a five-volume Water Encyclopedia for Wiley Interscience (May 2005), I have learned enough to know I need to eat fish in order to enhance my chances of seeing my 100th birthday. (I have 30 years to go.) This remains so in spite of your recent series on “the mercury menace.”

I thought I had seen the limits of journalistic distortion of scientific data until I read your series. You have broken new ground. It is not your fault that bad news sells. It does, and your series should increase the Tribune‘s readership base. Man is, after all, hard-wired to respond innately to fear. Were this not so, our forebears would not have sought the safety of the cave in order to maintain our homo sapiens specie. We owe our very existence on the planet to this human trait.

You correctly stated that the government limit for human mercury intake has not changed in 25 years, while science has most definitely advanced. But those advances illustrate conclusively that this quarter-century-old standard has served the public well.

We have no conclusive, scientifically derived cohort of children or adults found to be made ill by excess mercury intake. Pronouncements to the contrary are based either on anecdotal evidence or theoretical conjecture.

More outrageous is your claim that the government has failed to warn the public of the dangers of mercury ingestion from fish. What planet has your staff been marooned upon, that they are unaware that mercury has been the “contaminate du jour” for the past few years?

Furthermore, it would not seem possible that your otherwise-thorough and talented research staff, working on this series on mercury, would not have come upon the now-famous study performed and published by faculty members of the University of Rochester Medical School. But your writers appear to have failed to mention that a team of epidemiologists at that esteemed university analyzed the eating habits and subsequent health outcomes of inhabitants of the Seychelles Islands off the coast of India.

The Rochester researchers determined that these people ate six times as much fish as the average American and that their blood levels for mercury were 10 times higher than ours. They also concluded that the population exhibited not a single excess deleterious health outcome that could be associated with their mercury intake or high blood levels.

Finally, your readers should be aware that there is little disagreement over the fact that mercury in fish is primarily a result of natural environmental mercury, of which only the methylmercury variety can cause potential harm. Examination of fish remains from centuries ago find mercury levels just as high as the fish we eat today.

So like me, whether you like fish or not, eat it. As Mom said, it’s good for you.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D.
Ostrander, Ohio

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is Science Director for The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago.