Fish Eating: Safe or Toxic?

Who thought that our great oceans would become so toxic we would have to avoid eating certain fish?Our concern is not only with mercury, but with high levels of other pollutants, such as, PCBs, dioxins, and pesticides/herbicides, etc.. Industries have been dumping industrial waste into our rivers, which flow into our oceans; and toxic waste from the farming/agricultural industries have found their way into the ocean, too. There was an article in the Daily News (5-29-11) that most of the fish caught along the California coast is so high in mercury – it should not be consumed. This sure gives one confidence about eating fish…so what do we do?

The EPA (which regulates sports fishing) and the FDA (which regulates commercial seafood) have set limits for “safe” mercury levels in seafood, but they aren’t telling the general public the full scoop. They feel compelled to protect the seafood industry. They have provided a list of seafood that contains mercury from Highest Mercury down to Least Mercury, but one never knows the accuracy of the amount of mercury or other pollutants in the fish. It is a gamble, eating seafood.

The categories on the list (least mercury to highest mercury) are determined according to the following mercury levels in the flesh of tested fish:

* Least mercury: Less than 0.09 parts per million

* Moderate mercury: From 0.09 to 0.29 parts per million

* High mercury: From 0.3 to 0.49 parts per million

* Highest mercury: More than .5 parts per million

The list for the Least Amount of Mercury: contains many fish that are endangered (over-fished), which we should not be eating; and farmed salmon. Click on the following link to check out these lists: NRDC got their information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

How Toxic is Mercury? Mercury is one of the most poisonous metals known.Doses less than 1 millionth of a gram are toxic to brain cells. The “safe” dose level continues to fall, and some doctors and scientists have concluded that in fact there is no safe level of mercury for the body. Worse yet, mercury, especially methyl mercury, tends to accumulate in fatty parts of the body and remains for decades. It is important to understand that the brain is composed of 60 percent fat. Mercury interferes with a great number of cell enzymes and triggers chronic brain inflammation. It also disrupts the immune system, causing an impaired immune response.. In studies done by Dr. Jane Hightower, a San Francisco physician, she found that high mercury levels in patients correlated with memory loss, mental fog, confusion, loss of hair, and an inability to focus.

Where is this mercury coming from? There are four major contributors:

Coal burning plants

* Pesticide/herbicide use

* Undersea Volcanic eruptions

* Runoff from gold and other mining operations

Maps of atmospheric mercury accumulations show heavy levels along the Arctic Circle. Europe, the Asian Land Mass and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and Canada. There seems to be no way that we can escape this contamination, unless we take the necessary environmental steps to prevent their occurrence. Because mercury accumulates in sea life, the older, larger predatory fish contain the highest levels of mercury.

The least toxic fish turns out to be those who do not eat other fish, essentially, vegetarian fish like sardines or herring. Also, fish from northern waters are less likely to contain mercury and PCBs. On the list of to-eat is wild salmon (not from a fish farm as farmed salmon have been injected with a color injection to change their grey-tone to pink. This coloring has been identified as a documented cancer causing agent. In addition, farmed salmon is loaded with cancer causing PCBs from the fishmeal they’re fed; plus they are exposed to antibiotics and anti-fungals.

The worst of the large fish is tuna, which is used extensively in sushi. Shark and swordfish are not far behind; and cod has also been found to be high in pollutants. Red snapper isn’t much better. What has happened is that as the fish are becoming depleted; the fish that are left are eating more and more toxic smaller fish, narrowing the gap of healthy fish for consumption. Many of the larger fish are showing up on the endangered species list; part of the problem being the toxicity of their foods is harming their reproductive organs. However, over-fishing is a major part of the problem.

The Gulf Oil Spill last year wiped out many fish – and we can’t afford more environmental disasters like it. When you get a chance to sign a petition or write to your representative and senators, tell them no more oil drilling in sensitive waters. There has been enough damage done already to our lakes, rivers and oceans.

Independent studies have shown that the type of mercury found in seafood, methyl mercury (or organic mercury), is highly toxic to a number of organs and tissues, especially to the developing brain of fetuses and newborns. The elderly are also at high risk because age has weakened their cells, especially brain cells. Recent alerts have been issued by the regulatory agencies, as well as physician groups, suggesting that pregnant women should avoid eating fish known to have high mercury levels.

In a joint EPA-FDA advisory put out in 2004, women should be warned not to eat fish high in mercury if they are pregnant or may get pregnant within a year.Likewise, because the fetus is smaller and undergoing rapid development, it is infinitely more vulnerable to the toxicity of mercury, especially in regard to brain development.

In learning how toxic mercury is, if I were a mother-to-be, I would not touch fish. I would be ultra concerned about the damage it could be doing to my child’s brain development. I know how important Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) are…and I would opt for vegetarian sources, such as, flax seed, hemp seed or chia seed. These are far better choices of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. When many people think of fish oils, Cod Liver Oil comes to mind, but the EFAs in Cod are low…and many fish oils are rancid.

Many doctors do recommend EFAs to pregnant women, but they don’t cover, which form is best or which may be harmful. It is very important for expectant mothers to do their own research, because they probably will not be given the information they need. Most doctors are not into nutritional research. I know my own doctor told me that I knew far more than he did about nutrition…and that was a long time ago. The situation is basically the same. Few doctors are required to study nutrition in school.

It isn’t difficult to grind seeds in a small coffee/seed grinder. 15 grams/ ½ oz of Chia seeds contain 2775 mg of Omega 3 Fatty Acid (Alpha Linolenic), 30 gr/1 oz Hemp seeds contain 500 mg of Omega 3. and Flax 11 gr/1 TBL has 2500 mg of Omega 3. Hemp Milk (8 oz) contains 800 mg of Omega 3; and 85 gr of water packed Sardines contains 1000 mg of Omega 3. Buying Omega 3 eggs are not recommended, because the Omega 3 fed the chickens could be rancid. If you opt to grind your own seeds, grind only the amount you are using. They can be added to smoothies, home-made salad dressing or sprinkled on fresh greens. They are best used raw to get their full value.

For those who aren’t into raw foods, ground seeds can be added to cooked breakfast cereals…after they are cooked. They can also be added to homemade soups. These choices are healthier than eating many types of fish, which could contain a slew of pollutants you aren’t looking for, when you pay out good money for them.

Americans are eating 4 billion pounds of fish a year. Much of this totally questionable, as far as health goes. Many people love sushi made with tuna…ultra high in mercury. Is this a wise choice? Many other fish are high in Mercury, such as, Blue Fish, Grouper, Mackerel (Spanish, Gulf) Sea Bass (Chilean), Tuna (Canned Albacore), and Tuna (Yellowfin). People are consuming almost 1.2 billion cans of tuna a year; much of it eaten by small children. The joint EPA-FDA advisory suggests not eating more than six ounces of albacore tuna per week. They also suggest limiting the consumption of any fish containing mercury to 12 ounces per week. I personally would not feel comfortable with this amount of mercury-laden fish. I value the brain cells I have.

Highest in Mercury (avoid eating): Mackerel (King), Marlin, Orange Roughy, Shark, Swordfish. Tilefish, and Tuna (Big eye, Ahi).

In addition, many of these are fish that are perilously low in numbers or are caught using environmentally destructive methods. For more information see the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, both of which provide guides to fish to enjoy or avoid on the basis of environmental factors. Some of the fish that are designated with these problems are: Grouper, Sea Bass (Chilean), Tuna (Yellowfin), Marlin, Orange Roughy, Shark, Swordfish, Tilefish and Tuna (Big eye, Ahi).

There are many other fish that are listed under Least Mercury and Moderate Mercury that are perilously low. If we don’t stop eating them now, they will not exist in the near future. They can be found on the NRDC List, which I provided on the first page, Paragraph 4.

Most people are not aware of all the carcinogenic pollutants in the fish that they are eating. Mercury is bad, but so are the high levels of PCBs, dioxins, DDTs, chlordanes (pesticide), and other chemicals that are in fish. Also, make sure that the seafood you are eating doesn’t come from China, which has been exporting fish, coming from industrially polluted waters.

The US imports more seafood than any other country. 84% of the seafood consumed is imported, yet only 2% is currently inspected at the border. There is little or no information given on the package as to when it was caught, where it was caught, how it was caught and very little certainty if it was accurately labeled. The FDA found one third of seafood imports were mislabeled in 2003-2004. This has the potential to hurt one’s health and wallet.

Take a look at: and then see what you can do to make sure that the fish we are eating is properly labeled and inspected. I sent an email through Oceana to decision makers regarding this issue. This is something that everyone needs to do to make sure that our seafood is safe, legal and honestly labeled by requiring fish to be traceable and track-able throughout the supply chain. This could help keep illegal fish out of the market and improve seafood safety.

Do I eat fish? After doing this blog, which made me more aware about the dangers connected to eating fish, I intend to cut down on seafood …and opt for sardines.

Healthfully Yours,

Barbara Charis

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