A dangerous dish? Actor's claims of mercury poisoning renew debate over safe consumption of fish

The Advocate Staff

Posted: 01/13/2009 06:44:54 AM EST


Source of Article:  http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/localnews/ci_11441792


Most advisories issued by federal, state and local agencies reognize the benefits of eating fish, particularly for omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to have numerous health benefits.

But certain species can have high levels of methylmercury, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which can pose a health risk, particularly among high-risk groups, including women who are or could become pregnant, women who are nursing and young children.

So just how concerned should people be about the fish they eat? Some choices are better than others, says Brian Toal, an epidemiologist with Connecticut's Department of Public Health.

"Fish is good for you," he says.

However, he adds most of the cases of elevated mercury levels that are reported to the state office are typically caused by fish consumption rather than occupational hazards.

"This is a problem, but it can easily be avoided," he says, adding it is a matter of following the advisories. "You can eat a lot of fish very safely."

The most recent consumer advisory, released in 2004 by the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, is primarily aimed at those in the high-risk groups.

It is advised that members of that group eat up to 12 ounces -- about two meals a week -- of seafood low in mercury.

However, certain species are to be avoided, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. In Connecticut, striped bass is added to that list.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Drug Administration may recommend adjustments to its advisory, urging those in the high-risk groups to eat more than 12 ounces of fish a week.

But until then, the current advisory is what the state and area health agencies provide to consumers.

Toal says the advisories can be found on the department's Web site, and posted in supermarkets throughout the state. The department also recently added a warning for avid sushi eaters, encouraging them to eat a variety of fish and limit their consumption of tuna sushi, with its higher levels of mercury than some of the other types of sushi, to once a week.

There are different kinds of mercury poisoning, according to Dr. Charles McKay, associate medical director of the Connecticut Poison Control Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. The mercury contained in fish is methylmercury, also labeled organic, which is formed when mercury mixes with bacteria in the water. Most fish contain amounts of methylmercury, but the larger and older fish at the top of the food chain tend to have more.

People also can be exposed to elemental mercury and inorganic mercury while working with chemicals and other substances, he says.

Treatment for those with high levels of methylmercury in their system can range from removing the cause of the elevated levels and allowing the body to naturally flush out the mercury or using chelating agents, such as the drug penacillamine, which binds to the mercury and carries it out of the body, depending on the severity of the toxicity.

The latest flap over Piven's case has not caused an increase in calls to the local health departments, officials say. Tom Closter, director of environmental services for the Norwalk Health Department, oversees the inspection and permitting of more than 500 food establishments in the city. During the 10 years he has headed that department, out of a total of 28 years with the department, he says he has not received any complaints about the level of mercury in fish.

However, he encouraged those who are concerned about mercury levels to refer to the state advisories and guidelines.

The Piven story seemingly hasn't spurred an increase in questions to the Stamford Health Department, according to Anne Fountain, the emergency response coordinator. Though, from time to time, the agency fields some questions.

Fountain says advisories and state guides on fish consumption can be accessed via the city's Web site, www.ci.stamford.ct.us.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Getting a line on fish There are a number of ways to access guides and advisories aimed at warning the general public and high-risk groups of the level of mercury in many fish species. For the most recent tables on mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish, visit www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html. For the 2004 fish advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, visit www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html. Find information about fish advisories at www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, Calif., provides a pocket sushi guide that can be downloaded from www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_sushi.aspx. Connecticut's Department of Public Health provides advisories for commercially available fish, as well as fish caught in the state's waterways. Visit www.ct.gov/dph, click on the link for Environmental Health, then on the link for Fish Consumption. Stamford's Department of Health also provides advisories. Visit www.ci.stamford.ct.us then select the health department from the pull-down menu for city departments. Click on the link for Public Health Information and then click on the link for Eating Fish and Mercury Exposure. Visit Norwalk's Department of Health at www.norwalkhealth.com. It has links to the state Department of Health. The Greenwich Department of Health has several pamphlets available via the town's Web site. Visit www.greenwichct.org/HealthDept/HealthDept.asp and search for mercury. -- Christina Hennessy




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