Americans Who Eat Canned Albacore Tuna Ingest Too Much Mercury, New Data Shows

Environmentalists Call for More Stringent Consumer Warnings

SAN DIEGO (January 26, 2004) -- Pregnant women and children are putting their health at risk when they eat canned tuna, particularly albacore, according to data released today by three environmental groups at the annual National Forum on Contaminants in Fish. The data, compiled by the Mercury Policy Project, California Communities Against Toxics and NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), show a wide range of mercury levels in canned albacore tuna, some higher than the average levels in swordfish and shark -- two fish the federal government says should not be consumed by pregnant women.

"A woman who eats an average 6 ounce can of albacore in a day would exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's 'safe' level for mercury exposure by more than 10 times," said Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project. "But 5 percent of the albacore cans we tested had much higher levels than the average. A woman eating albacore with the highest level of mercury would consume 30 times more mercury than what EPA considers safe."

Like lead, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that especially threatens the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. People are exposed to mercury largely through eating certain fish. Coal-fired power plants, chlorine production facilities and other industrial sources emit the chemical into the environment, and a particularly dangerous form of it -- methyl mercury -- accumulates in the tissue of large predator fish, such as shark, swordfish and tuna.

The three-day conference, which began yesterday, is an annual meeting of state public health and environmental officials, Native American tribes, and nonprofit organizations, including fishing groups (for more information, click here). This year's meeting includes a special session on mercury at which participants will discuss the Food and Drug Administration's proposed national mercury advisory, along with new data on mercury levels in tuna. The environmental groups say the FDA advisory for tuna should be as stringent as one adopted by the EPA. (For the FDA proposed advisory, click here.)

Last month the FDA proposed a new draft fish advisory warning consumers to eat no more than 12 ounces of fish per week to avoid dangerous levels of mercury. But the proposed advisory failed to cite which fish are the most contaminated and should be avoided. An FDA science advisory panel rejected the draft, and instructed the agency to produce three lists of specific types of fish with high, medium and low mercury levels.

"The FDA should throw away its proposed guidelines and follow the recommendations of its science advisory panel," said Dr. Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist at NRDC. "People have a right to know which fish are safe to eat and which are not." Government tests, she added, show that one out of 12 women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that exceed the government safety standard.

The environmental groups' new data on mercury in tuna combines results from a new FDA test obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request and a Mercury Policy Project study, "Can the Tuna," published last June. Together, both studies tested 218 cans of albacore tuna and 141 cans of light tuna sold under a variety of brand names. The tests found average levels of mercury in albacore tuna at 0.39 parts per million (ppm), and average levels in light tuna at 0.12 ppm -- a third of that in albacore. The combined data found that 5 percent of the albacore tuna cans had mercury levels higher than 0.64 ppm. The two sets of test data showed consistent results.

"When consumers reach for a can of tuna in the grocery store, they don't know if they are buying a can that is low or high in mercury," Bender added. "They're playing Russian roulette, and there's better than a 50-50 chance they'll get a can with high level of mercury."

California supermarkets are required to warn consumers about mercury levels in fresh fish, but there are no requirements that they post advisories for canned fish. "It is clear from this new data that Californians who eat tuna are putting their health at risk," said Jane Williams, director of California Communities Against Toxics, a coalition of community-based health advocacy and environmental justice groups. "The tuna industry and our state government need to do more to warn consumers about the dangers of canned tuna consumption."

The Mercury Policy Project works to promote policies to eliminate mercury uses, reduce the export and trafficking of mercury, and significantly reduce human and wildlife exposures to mercury at the local, national, and international levels. MPP was founded in 1998 and networks with hundreds of NGOs, scientists and government officials on mercury issues. For more information, click here.

California Communities Against Toxics advocates for environmental justice, pollution prevention, and world peace. CCAT was founded in 1989 and is one of the oldest and most successful environmental justice networks in the country, uniting Native Nations, inner city people of color, and the rural poor in coalition. For more information, click here.

NOTE: The FDA recently released test results that found canned albacore "white" tuna has three times the mercury level in canned "light" tuna. For political reasons, the agency is unwilling to tell consumers specific information about the safe amount of tuna - or any other fish - to eat. As a public service, NRDC has posted on its website an easy-to-use table so consumers can make informed choices about how often they can safely eat tuna. The table is based on FDA test results and safe levels determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can access the table here.