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Not a Fish Story
Published on Wednesday, August 3, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Not a Fish Story
by Joan Elan Davis
 
Countless American children are being poisoned by the mercury in their tuna sandwiches, and no amount of industry public-relations spin can or will change that fact. My son suffered debilitating effects from eating mercury-contaminated tuna. Last year, millions of Americans learned of his suffering on an episode of PBS' "NOW" with Bill Moyers. This week, his story was again told in the Wall Street Journal. It is a story that the tuna industry does not want you to know.

In October 2003, during Matthew's fifth grade, his principal and teachers called a meeting about his performance. They told my husband and me that our son was suddenly performing at a grade level dramatically lower than normal. The teachers suggested that Matthew had developed serious learning disabilities. He could not write coherent sentences or do math problems, including simple addition and multiplication. His grade level scores on nationwide tests had declined significantly.

"Who were they talking about?" my husband and I asked ourselves. Matt had always been a top student in all subjects in addition to being a wonderful actor and a bright and creative boy. We went along with the school's recommendation for disability tests by a professional. The tests showed reduced auditory processing, short-term memory loss and dysgraphia (a handwriting disability). He was digressing in front of our eyes.

One month after receiving the test results and beginning work with learning specialists, we read an article in The Chronicle about a young girl close to Matthew's age who was beginning to lose her ability to tie her shoes, play her favorite sports, remember the names and faces of her classmates and do her schoolwork. The article attributed her digression to mercury poisoning from her daily diet of tuna fish.

We immediately made a connection to Matthew's symptoms, which included clouded thinking, bent fingers, acid reflux, lethargy, apathy, lack of coordination with his hands and feet, as well as a tingling and pain in his extremities. Children often find a favorite food, and Matthew loved tuna fish. He always wanted a tuna fish sandwich for meals and we indulged him, wrongly believing that we were providing him with healthy and nutritious food.

The day we read that article we immediately removed tuna from his diet. Matthew's doctor told us to have him tested for mercury, and then we received the shocking results: Matthew had more than 12 times the level considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, according to his pediatrician. This was two months after he stopped eating tuna completely. Based on the rate at which mercury is eliminated from the human body, Matthew's levels were likely 25 times the safe level when he stopped eating tuna 60 days earlier!

Almost immediately after banning tuna we noticed a change in Matthew's health. Improvements continued and, over a period of nine months, his intelligence tests (as administered by a private tutor center) nearly tripled. Now 12, he can function at the appropriate grade level and has all of his dexterity back.

We are fortunate to have found what was causing our son's ill health before the effects were irreversible. Knowing this, we ask ourselves why we did not have the information we needed to make informed food choices in the first place. We returned to the grocery store to check tuna cans and shelves for health warnings. We found none. Why are we and so many other Americans denied this information?

The answer was perhaps most poignantly revealed in the Wall Street Journal article on Monday. David Burney, the executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, when asked about Matthew's illness from eating mercury- contaminated tuna, was quoted as saying, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life."

I feel a sense of rage to hear the tuna industry responding to Matthew's and our family's plight with such insensitivity and dishonesty. It is unconscionable that the industry continues to put our children's health at risk by denying that there are significant risks from consuming mercury- contaminated tuna. (The U.S. Tuna Foundation tells consumers that to be at risk, they would have to eat 1,358 cans of tuna per year!) Burney's quote in the Wall Street Journal article speaks volumes about "big tuna's" disregard for the well being of our children.

A mercury calculator at www.gotmercury.org (sponsored by the Turtle Island Restoration Network) has helped me to inform friends and family members about how to avoid the highest mercury fish, which is vital to preventing mercury poisoning, but it's not enough. We as consumers need to demand that government, industry and retailers warn the public of the dangers surrounding mercury-contaminated fish, especially tuna, by posting warnings and serving guidelines on cans, in aisles at the store and at the fish counter. Our children should be our top priority. As a society, we need to make absolutely sure that we protect our children's health -- especially from easily preventable afflictions such as mercury poisoning. It is inexcusable that any child should have to unnecessarily suffer what my child Matthew has endured.

Joan Elan Davis, a professional artist and mother who lives in San Francisco, volunteers for causes involving art and children.

© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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