Tuesday, November 25, 2003

don't eat the fish

Investigation Shows High Mercury Levels in Popular Fish - Barbara Rodgers

Watch the full report Tuesday (tonight) at 5pm on CBS 5.

• Is Your Fish Dinner Making You Sick?
• Report: Bay Recovering from Decades of Pollution
• Big Fish Eaters May Suffer from Mercury Poisoning

Libby Reilly has spent the last two years trying to get the poison out of her body.

"I found out I was toxic," she said. "My readings were off the chart."

Off the chart for methylmercury. Libby believes she ingested it by eating a steady diet of deep ocean fish --the same kind of fish Wendy Moro used to eat several days a week.

"I felt I was being poisoned," Wendy said. "My muscles ached."

CBS 5 teamed with the San Francisco Chronicle to test four popular species of fish for mercury: halibut, tuna, sea bass and swordfish -- all purchased from high-end fish markets around the Bay Area. The results were startling.

Only halibut contained less than the 38 micrograms of mercury the EPA recommends for a 120-pound person for an entire week. Not only was tuna higher than that limit, but sea bass had nearly twice that level, and swordfish had nearly six times the EPA's safe mercury intake for a week in a single serving.

While our test results are from a limited sample of fish -- and are no means definitive -- they do highlight a growing dilemma for consumers. Can you trust the government standards? Especially since up until now even top government watchdogs haven't been able to agree themselves, starting with how much fish is too much.

The Environmental Protection Agency (news - web sites) lists its safe amount for women either pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant at six ounces a week. But the Food and Drug Administration (news - web sites) okays twice that much -- 12 ounces.

Then consider an example from our test. If a single serving of swordfish already contains six times the EPA's level for a week, then you'd be eating three months worth if you followed the FDA's guideline. Confused? You're not alone.

"We use a different risk guidelines than the FDA does, and we have been trying to work with them for years now to standardize these guidelines so we can give a clear message to the American public on what's safe to eat," said the EPA's Leo Kay.

Until now, the message has been anything but clear. California has listed methylmercury as reproductive risk since the 1980's. But California grocery stores weren't forced to post warning signs until recently, after a lawsuit by the state. Some victims like Wendy are concerned they don't go far enough.

And with concerns ranging from muscle pain to prenatal issues, some fish eaters like Libby Reilly are cutting the larger species out of their diet all together. She's also now undergoing a new, alternative treatment called chelation -- which employs an IV containing agents meant to help the body flush mercury through the renal tract.

For the time being, doctors are advising consumers to eat a variety of fish -- mixing in smaller fish like salmon, shellfish, and scallops that don't tend to collect as much mercury as the larger species. As for the EPA and FDA -- they're expecting to finally issue unified guidelines by the first of the year.