Think you’ve been steering clear of mercury by avoiding tuna? Think again. The EPA released study last week showing mercury and PCBs in all the fish they studied.
The National Lake Fish Tissue Study, conducted over five years and compassing fish from all regions of the United States, found toxins accumulating in all the fish they tested. Just under half of lakes had levels of mercury above the 0.3 ppm the EPA deems safe for humans. Mercury and other fat-soluble toxins are particular concerns to pregnant women and young children. Exposure to mercury can cause a developing fetus to lose IQ points, and interfere with attention span and cognitive function in preschoolers. A kid who has been exposed to high levels of mercury may, for instance, suddenly forget how to tie his shoes. He’ll probably get the ability back once the mercury has been removed.
To avoid most of the mercury and keep enjoying the fish, follow these simple guidelines from Malcolm Wittenberg, CEO of Safe Harbor, a company that tests for mercury in commercially sold fish.
- Choose salmon over swordfish
- Choose shellfish over large fin fish
- Aim for smaller, younger fish
- Pregnant women and young children should consider eating limited amounts of fish
Wittenberg said the key factors to watch for are the size of the fish, the species, and the area of the world it comes from. You can also look for the Safe Harbor seal on fish before you buy it: Safe Harbor tests each fish it certifies, and requires that mercury levels be well below the limits EPA sets. For salmon, they only certify fish that 90% below the EPA limit.
One strategy that won’t keep you safe: spending more on your fish. Upscale restaurants and high-end grocery stores often go for presentation, which means serving up the largest, prettiest fish. These are not necessarily healthier. In fact, since mercury and other toxins bioaccumulate over time, larger fish often have greater concentrations of them.
Wittenberg said that he eats fish himself, and feeds it to his kids. But only the ones his company has certified as safe.
For myself, I think I’ll keep to my vegetarian diet. It’s served me well for 20 years, and I have yet to see a scary study about heavy metals in broccoli.
Photo: Taro Taylor