Mercurial politics: Forecast Earth
Mercurial politics
Posted on December 19, 2008 at 10:51 am ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

As another endgame swipe at environmental protections, the outgoing Bush administration is trying to downplay the proven health risks of mercury exposure from fish in an attempt to give payback to supporters in the fishing industry. The Associated Press reports that the attempt to withdraw health warnings about mercury in certain fish is such a bald-faced pander that even the emasculated Environmental Protection Agency is calling the action "scientifically flawed."

I used to think, "Hey, you could get hit by a truck walking across the street. Trace amounts of mercury in otherwise healthy fish hardly seem worth worrying about." When my dermatologist told me that he was more worried about mercury exposure in his patients than sun overexposure, I began to take the issue more seriously. The airborne mercury that's settling on every square inch of the earth from coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources is settling equally heavily on the oceans. It becomes part of the plankton that's at the base of the marine food web, and it becomes higher in concentration in the flesh of each successive fish up the chain. So top predators like sharks, blue fin tunas, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel end up with dangerously high levels of the toxic metal in their systems.

Children and pregnant women are most at risk form mercury poisoning, which causes nervous system and brain damage. It also leads to learning disabilities in babies born to mercury-carrying mothers. Eight percent of US women of childbearing age already have mercury levels high enough to result in such learning disabilities. Could anyone think that that's not enough?

I'm personally ticked off about the sneaky move to pull warnings about health threats from these fish because I've viewed those warnings as one of the few ways to prevent people from killing off species of fish that are under severe threat from overfishing, such as those tunas, sharks, tilefish, and swordfish. All of them are listed as red-light, eco-disasters by all of the major ocean stewardship organizations. The fact that they're unhealthy to eat might be enough, if word gets out, to pull back some from the wholesale overfishing that's taking them to the brink. Fortunately, we're close enough to the turn of the new administration that even if this venal measure gets passed, it will be immediately eligible for review and nullification by policymakers with some concern for the future of the planet.

Posted on December 19, 2008 at 10:51 am ET

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