WASHINGTON -- October 26 -- In response to a new Institute of Medicine proposal, advocates are calling on the federal Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program to stop exposing America's most sensitive, low income populations to mercury in white tuna. The IOM Report is considering " ...dietary guidance from federal agencies and panels of the National Academies regarding food safety" and suggests that "the types of fish/shellfish that are intermediate in methylmercury contamination (be) limited" in the WIC program. "Since last year, FDA has known that white canned tuna has three times as much mercury as light tuna," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "So why is the federal WIC program continuing to subsidize the tuna industry and, in effect, the poisoning of low-income Americans with mercury from white albacore tuna?
FDA and many state health departments now recommend that pregnant women and children limit consumption of canned tuna due to mercury contamination. This is not only because of the moderately high levels of mercury found especially in white tuna, but because of the volume of canned tuna consumed each year, especially among sensitive populations. On average, 20 percent of the fish consumed in America is canned tuna.
"According to the US Department of Agriculture, canned tuna is the most heavily consumed fish that pregnant women and children eat-hence it is likely to be their largest exposure source of mercury," said MPP director Bender. "Therefore, we strongly recommend that white albacore canned tuna be eliminated from the WIC food package."
Currently, canned tuna is the only animal meat protein source offered by WIC programs, except in Hawaii. Earlier this year, Hawaii became the first state authorized by USDA to offer canned salmon-which contains far less mercury-in place of tuna. The request was justified primarily due to high rates of exposure to mercury by indigenous populations who eat above average amounts of fish. But even for those Americans who eat far less fish, mercury exposure from canned tuna raise serious concerns.
Based on new FDA data, a typical 130 pound American women consuming an average 6 ounce can of "white" tuna per week would be exposed to mercury 1.5 times over the EPA's safe level, called a reference dose. In addition, a 22-pound toddler who eats just 2 ounces of albacore white tuna a week would ingest nearly three times the EPA's safe level, and an 88-pound child eating 6 ounces would be exposed to twice EPA's safe level.
Methylmercury is an increasingly well-understood threat to healthy brain and nervous system development. Fetal or early childhood exposure to methylmercury can lead to neurological and developmental problems such as learning disabilities, attention and fine motor skills deficits, and delays in walking and talking.
One in six women of childbearing age carry mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus, according to EPA scientists. Thus, an estimated 630,000 newborns are threatened every year by neurological impairment from exposure during pregnancy.