WHO/FAO "Expert" Group Fails to Inform Governments About Mercury Exposure Risks from Seafood, say NGOs

Oct 04, 2011, 14:26 ET from Mercury Policy Project

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The findings of a new WHO/FAO Report on Benefits and Risks of Seafood Consumption(1) will be presented this week at the World Seafood Congress in Washington, DC.   However, advocates believe that the report missed a key opportunity to advise governments about mercury risk from fish consumption.

The report was supposed to provide a framework for assessments on risks and benefits of seafood that would assist governments in preparing advice for their own populations.  It was also to provide recommendations for target populations, including fetuses, infants and young children, women of reproductive age and high fish consumers, as well as the general population.

"Surprisingly, this expert group failed to address exposure concerns about fish with higher mercury levels, which have led to consumption advisories in the U.S. and around the world," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project.

The report is largely silent on exposure risks to sensitive populations from consumption of higher-mercury fish.  Instead, it highlights benefits of fish consumption, even during pregnancy.

"The concept of 'net benefits' is severely flawed, because benefits accrue to everyone who eats seafood, but risks are concentrated in the small fraction of the population who regularly choose high-mercury fish," said Dr. Ned Groth, an environmental health scientist and consultant with the Mercury Policy Project. "It is not acceptable to tolerate significant harm to a minority just because the large majority are better off."

Recent epidemiological studies strongly suggest that the mercury doses associated with ordinary, everyday fish consumption can largely "cancel out" the benefits of fish nutrients for the developing brain, and for some individuals, the "net effect" is harmful.

"While fish contain beneficial nutrients and pregnant women should consume seafood, we can both optimize benefits and minimize risks by guiding women to choose low-mercury fish," Groth explained.

But this consensus advice is missing from the new WHO/FAO expert report.

And, while they are still the central focus of public health concern, women of childbearing age are not the only population that needs guidance about minimizing methylmercury exposure from fish consumption. Surveys in Wisconsin have found middle-aged and older men to be the most highly exposed group; 30 percent of older men had elevated hair mercury, compared to just 12 percent of women of childbearing age.   Anyone who eats fish often needs to be aware of mercury levels in different varieties, which differ by more than 100-fold.

In many other countries, fish and seafood make up far more of the diet than in the U.S. But most governments have very little data on the differences in mercury content among the most consumed seafood. "This report would have been much more useful for the international community if it had put as much emphasis on managing mercury risks as it appears to have put on promoting seafood's nutritional benefits," Bender added.  

(1) http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/ba0136e/ba0136e00.pdf

SOURCE Mercury Policy Project