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Is It Still Safe to Eat Seafood?

With the controversial and conflicting reports of PCBs and mercury in fish, how much is too much when it comes to this heart-healthy food?

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Many fish aficionados have been using the same gag for years: "Yes, I love seafood. When I see food, I eat it!" Yet, there seems to be nothing funny these days about conflicting reports swimming around on the safety of seafood.

One minute, we're told the fruits of the ocean are filled with harmful chemicals such as mercury. The next moment, we hear that perhaps the mercury in fish isn't as bad for us as previously thought.

Then there's the whole uproar over farmed vs. fresh fish. Some environmental groups have been crying foul about high levels of toxins in pen-raised seafood. Many in the fish-farming (aquaculture) industry, however, insist that what's nurtured is just as safe as what's captured in the wild.

The hullabaloo has been enough to unnerve seafood lovers who are worried about the health consequences of eating fish. It is actually quite a paradox, given that many groups, such as the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Dietetic Association (ADA), and the CDC, fully endorse the health benefits of fish.

Provision and Poison

Seafood is regarded as an important part of a balanced diet, primarily because it contains high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The latter prevents blood from clotting and protects against irregular heartbeats.

The heart-health benefits of fish are so pronounced that the AHA recommends at least two servings of it a week, particularly fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, since they contain omega-3 fatty acids.

This fish tale would, indeed, be a perfectly happy one, if it weren't for the menacing presence of something else in all fish: mercury. Mercury exists naturally in the environment, and more of it is released into the air, land, and water by activities such as trash burning, fossil fuel combustion in factories, mining, and the dumping of sewage sludge in croplands.

Once mercury is in water, it quickly makes its way through the marine food chain. In smaller organisms, there is usually an insignificant amount of the substance, but as bigger fish eat the smaller ones, the quantity of the element accumulates. Consequently, the fish at the top of the food chain, such as pike, bass, very large tuna, tilefish, king mackerel, shark, and swordfish, tend to have higher levels of methylmercury, approximately 1 to 10 million times greater than the amount in surrounding waters, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There is no disputing that extremely high exposure to mercury can kill people, says Thomas Burke, PhD, member of the National Academy of Science's committee on the health effects of methylmercury. "You can have a seizure and die," he says.

Burke says that a high concentration of the chemical can possibly cause problems in childbirth, the circulatory system (perhaps becoming a risk factor for heart disease), and the nervous system (causing developmental problems, even with low exposure, particularly in kids).

Researchers are still trying to figure out the extent of the negative health effects due to low-level methylmercury exposure, but for now, the FDA, which regulates commercially sold fish, considers safe up to 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury in fish.

The agency reports that, on the average, the goods in U.S. seafood market contain less than 0.3 ppm of methylmercury.

Safe Seas?

Here's more good news from the FDA: the top 10 seafood species (which make up about 80% of the U.S. seafood market) -- canned tuna, shrimp, pollock, salmon, cod, catfish, clams, flatfish, crabs, and scallops -- generally contain less than 0.2 ppm of methylmercury.

A recent report published in the Aug. 29 issue of the journal Science casts doubt on the true dangers of fish eating. In lab tests, Stanford University researchers determined that the mercury in fish may be a different type than previously thought. There are reportedly 26 different known compounds of mercury, and the kind researchers now suspect in fish may be less toxic than the old variety.

Yet this doesn't change the fact that mercury as a substance is, overall, not good for people, says Gail Frank, RD, spokeswoman for the ADA and professor of nutrition at California State University in Long Beach. "We don't want to choose foods because it has mercury," she says. "We also don't want to go around making major changes to our eating pattern just because of one report."

This means people shouldn't be eating much more or much less fish than usual, explains Frank. For good health, she suggests two to four 3-ounce servings of fish per week.

On the other hand, the FDA recommends only one 7-ounce helping per week of large fish, such as shark and swordfish. For seafood with lower levels of mercury, officials advise no more than 14 ounces per week.

Fresh Fish, Farmed Fish

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a watchdog organization, recently analyzed 10 farmed salmon fillets bought from grocery stores in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Portland, Ore. In a report, researchers say farmed salmon are "likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply."

PCBs are synthetic chemicals released in the environment through commercial manufacturing activities. In 1979, the compound was banned in the country (except in PCB-containing equipment already in service), because of its potential hazard to health. It continues to be a threat because of its long half-life and the extensive life expectancy of the electrical transformers that utilize it.

EWG officials say PCBs are likely to cause cancer in people. In addition, the EPA states that at high levels, the compound may kill laboratory rats or cause them developmental problems or damage to the liver, kidney, and nervous and endocrine systems. There has reportedly been no known case of human death associated with PCBs.

The EWG study shows that the PCB levels of farmed salmon are 16 times higher than in fresh salmon, 4 times higher than in beef, and 3.4 times higher than in other seafood.

Yet before eliminating farmed salmon from your diet, it's important to place the EWG report in full perspective, says K. Dun Gifford, president and founder of the Oldways Preservation Trust, a food issues think tank and a strong supporter of aquaculture.

"The EWG report looked at a small sample of the total amount of foods we eat," says Gifford. "Butter has 2 1/2 times the level of PCBs found in farmed salmon by the EWG. Chicken breast has about the same as the farmed salmon."

The EPA's position is that PCB exposure happens mainly through diet, particularly from fish and seafood products. Contamination may also occur through eating red meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Even with all the confusion, Frank advises people not to be scared to death about eating fish. "Don't go AWOL with individual reports," she advises. "Don't become so obsessed as to destroy moderate eating."

Special Alerts

Experts say there are certain populations who could be a little more cautious about how much fish they eat. Pregnant and nursing women and women of childbearing age who can get pregnant belong in this category because of the potential to pass on ingested toxins to their young. Babies and little kids are more susceptible to the effect of chemicals.

People with weakened immune systems are also encouraged to pay attention to their seafood intake because of their decreased ability to fight hazards posed by dangerous chemicals.

For these groups, Frank recommends no more than two 3-ounce portions of seafood a week.

On the other hand, the FDA warns pregnant women and women of childbearing age against eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. If they do eat it, they suggest no more than once a month. As for other seafood, the agency considers safe up to 12 ounces of cooked fish per week.

The Bottom Line

No one seems to argue that fish is a significant part of a healthy diet. Experts say it's important to be aware of what type of seafood you're eating, and to stay within limits of recommended serving sizes.

Although the advice for portions per week may depend on the type of fish eaten and the eater, one simple method suggested by Burke is to eat a variety of foods in moderation, being careful to eat little or avoid seafood known to have high concentrations of unwanted chemicals.

In addition to that, Frank says it's also crucial to look at how the seafood is prepared and eaten. "Many people fry their fish, or douse it with mayonnaise ... taking a healthy food and making it unhealthy," she says.

Published Sept. 11, 2003.



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