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[greenyes] Tuna Fish, Chemicals, and America in the 21st Century


[This second of a three part series on the unrecognized threats from
chemicals and pollution in the Wall Street Journal -- yes the Wall Street
Journal -- suggests two lessons for us, discussed at the end....

peter]

WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 1, 2005

Fish Line
Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions Balancing Interests,
Agencies Issue Guidance at Odds With EPA Risk Assessment
A Schoolboy's Sudden Setback
By PETER WALDMAN

SAN FRANCISCO -- One by one, Matthew Davis's fifth-grade teachers went
around the table describing the 10-year-old boy. He wasn't focused in class
and often missed assignments, they said. He labored at basic addition. He
could barely write a simple sentence.
"Our jaws dropped," says his mother, Joan Elan Davis, describing a teachers'
meeting she had requested in late 2003, when her son abruptly lost interest
in homework. Matthew had always excelled in school. In the fourth grade, he
had written and illustrated a series of stories about a superhero named Dog
Man.

Ms. Davis noticed something else: Her son's fingers were starting to curl,
as if he were gripping a melon. And he could no longer catch a football.
A neurologist ordered tests. They showed Matthew's blood was laced with
mercury in amounts nearly double what the Environmental Protection Agency
says is the safe level for exposure to the metal. Matthew had mercury
poisoning, his doctors said.
The Davises had pinpointed the suspected source: tuna fish. For a year or
so, starting in late 2002, Matthew had gobbled three to six ounces a day of
white albacore tuna. Based on Food and Drug Administration data for canned
albacore, he was consuming a daily dose of mercury at least 12 times what
the EPA considered a safe level for a 60-pound child. The Davises' doctors'
prescription was simple: Matthew should stop eating canned tuna.


Ms. Davis, an artist, says she and her husband, a corporate executive, had
been proud of their son for choosing tuna over junk food. Now, she asks
herself: "Was I a bad parent? Was it my fault I didn't know there was
mercury in tuna?"
One reason she didn't know was that the government had never said so. The
FDA had known for many years that canned tuna contained mercury, which
studies link to learning impairment in children. Consumer groups long urged
the agency to address the issue. But it wasn't until March 2004, after
regulatory tussles between health advocates and the tuna industry and
between clashing scientists for the FDA and EPA, that those agencies issued
a mercury advisory that cited tuna. That joint EPA and FDA advisory urged
limits on how much tuna children and some women should eat.
But the limits set in the advisory may exceed safe levels for some people,
judging by a mercury risk assessment that the EPA produced on its own years
earlier.


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People vary in how they react to mercury they ingest and how fast they purge
it. The EPA's exposure limit is based on its calculation that mercury above
5.8 parts per billion in young women's bloodstreams may pose a danger to
their babies. By this measure, 5.7% of U.S. infants, or 228,000 a year,
could be at risk of mercury poisoning during gestation, based on the latest
blood survey of women of childbearing age by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention.
The maximum safe level might be lower still, says the EPA's top mercury risk
assessor, Kathryn Mahaffey, based on recent evidence that fetuses
concentrate more mercury in their blood than do their pregnant mothers.
Former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt says the reason the government
didn't make the mercury-in-fish advisory tougher was to avoid scaring people
away from fish. "Mercury is bad and fish is good. We needed to choose the
right words that would give people a sense of knowledge without creating
unwarranted fear," says Mr. Leavitt, now head of the Health and Human
Services Department. He adds that scientists, not bureaucrats, worked out
the guidelines, reconciling the varying views of FDA and EPA researchers.
The EPA senior scientist handling that reconciliation, Rita Schoeny, says
there is no way to know for sure whether people who follow the fish advisory
and consume more mercury than the EPA's limit are actually safe. Asked
whether she agreed with what the advisory said about tuna, she didn't
respond except to say: "I think what we have in the advisory is good
public-health advice."
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The FDA stood by its 1979 mercury-consumption limit that was much higher
than the EPA's.
Some EPA scientists griped that FDA officials were coddling food companies.
"They really consider the fish industry to be their clients, rather than the
U.S. public," charges Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist now working
for the state of Maine. The FDA's Dr. Acheson denies that commercial
concerns played a role in the agency's decision making.

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FOR FULL ARTICLE:
http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB112268169016100484,00.html?mod=todays_us_page_one



The first thing that this says to me is that even though things have
gotten so bad in Washington -- or rather because they have gotten SO bad --
even the leading newspaper of the investment class (which is supposed to be
only interested in making a quick buck) has found things have gone too far.

The second is the irony that, in this context, the EPA, for the first
time in years, comes across as the tough guy in regulatory terms instead of
being rolled over. How is that, I ask myself? And the answer that suggests
itself is that in this context, the EPA has no decision making power, which
instead lies with the FDA. That is to say, when they're not responsible and
hence the heat is not on them, then the natural environmentally concerned
instincts of the non-political staff can rise to the surface. It's nice to
know that its still there, ready to be plumbed were a sensitive
administration to ever take control of the White House.


p

_________________________
Peter Anderson, President
RECYCLEWORLDS CONSULTING
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Madison, WI 53705-4964
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 698-1314
eMail: anderson@no.address
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