International W.H.O./F.A.O Committee Recommends Sharply Reduced Safe Levels of Exposure to Mercury in Seafood

Value Is Twice as Stringent as FDA's

Statement by Linda E. Greer, Ph.D., Director, NRDC Public Health Program

WASHINGTON (June 26, 2003) -- Today the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) released the conclusions of its deliberation on the safety of methyl mercury in seafood. The Committee recommended that W.H.O. lower its safe level by half, reflecting scientific concern about mercury exposure. The JECFA recommendation to reduce safe levels is consistent with the conclusions of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2000. The JECFA's recommended safe level is nonetheless twice as stringent as that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which continues to rely on an outdated and unprotective number which has not been reviewed since 1979. Methyl mercury is a serious pollutant in our food supply, and people are exposed through eating popular foods they consider to be good for them, such as swordfish and albacore tuna fish. It's a particular concern for pregnant women and children, since, like lead, it affects the developing nervous system.

The WHO recommendation can be found on page 18 of the Summary and Conclusions of the 61st Meeting.

NRDC worked with a group of more than 50 international scientific specialists to urge the JECFA panel to adopt a more stringent mercury standard in a letter sent to the panel at the beginning of its deliberations June 9 in Rome. This letter, which summarizes the state of the science and makes recommendations to the panel, can be accessed here.


"We commend JECFA for their deliberation and conclusions on the threats posed by methyl mercury contamination. This is a move in the right direction. In response, FDA now urgently needs to update U.S. safety levels consistent with the recommendation of the W.H.O. Consumers, particularly pregnant women, should limit their consumption of fish such as swordfish and tuna fish.

"These new stringent health numbers from W.H.O. serve as a clarion call to the Bush administration to aggressively tackle the major sources of mercury pollution, which are enjoying an undeserved relaxation in rule development at the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA is addressing mercury generated by the coal industry (utility MACT rule), the chemical industry (chlor-alkali MACT rule) and the auto recycling industry (iron and steel rule), and none of these rules go far enough to protect human health. The administration's proposal for cleaning up power plant pollution is similarly inadequate to address the problem of mercury contamination."

Additional recommended contacts:
science: Dr. Alan Stern, UMDNJ School of Public Health and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel on methyl mercury, 732-423-7240.
policy: Michael Bender, author of recent report on mercury in tuna fish, "Can the Tuna", 802-223-9000.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.