WASHINGTON - February 5 - Citing three recently published studies, advocates today called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to step up its efforts to limit children's exposure to mercury from fish and seafood. FDA is currently revising its dietary advisory on mercury in fish, with a final version due out this spring.
"New findings from the Faroe Islands study and EPA research show clearly that better dietary advice specifically for children is critically needed," said Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project. "While some states give specific advice to children, FDA remains asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting children from mercury."
FDA's latest "draft dietary advisory," was tested last week in a focus group in San Diego. The new advisory is primarily aimed at women of childbearing age and does not include specific fish consumption recommendations for children, who weigh less than adults and who can therefore safely consume much smaller amounts of mercury-containing fish.
"FDA must recognize that kids are not little adults, but are uniquely at risk from the mercury in their diet," Bender added.
According to the MPP, the recently published results also demonstrate the importance of an effort to keep consumers' mercury intake within safe limits, as defined by a safety standard for mercury exposure called the Reference Dose. The current U.S. standard for mercury is a Reference Dose adopted several years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency, and endorsed last year by the FDA. FDA has since said it regards the Reference Dose as a "useful guideline" but conceded recently that women who followed its new draft dietary advice on fish consumption could exceed that safety limit.
That's not acceptable, says Bender. "Damage occurred to the developing brains of kids in the Faroe Islands study at mercury intakes right around the Reference Dose. FDA's so-called "action level" of 1 part per million is four times less stringent than that, and clearly not protective."
The latest research findings were published this week in the Journal of Pediatrics. Two papers report results of tests of brain and heart function in 14-year-old children, who have been followed since birth in a large, long-term study of a population with a high-fish diet in the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory in the North Atlantic. The investigators found that damage to the nervous system, associated with relatively higher mercury exposure during pregnancy and documented in studies of the same individuals at younger ages, persisted in the 14-year olds, indicating that these developmental toxic effects are irreversible.
In a second paper, the same investigators found an association between mercury exposure and less effective control by the nervous system of heart rate, which suggests a link between mercury exposure in the womb or in childhood, and the risk of cardiovascular problems later in life.
In a related development, last week EPA scientists using data collected by the Centers for Disease Control estimated that one in six pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose a risk of brain damage to her developing child. This new estimate is double that of a previous assessment, which had said about 8 percent of US women of childbearing age had elevated blood mercury levels. The latest EPA estimate, which comes at a time when the Bush Administration has just relaxed restrictions on mercury air pollution from coal-burning power plants and other sources, means about 630,000 children born each year are at risk for lowered intelligence and learning problems due to mercury effects on their developing brains.