SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration must slash by half the permissible mercury levels in fish to protect public health, especially for women and children, environmentalists say in Federal Court.
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Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the FDA and its Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, demanding initiation of rulemaking that would cut mercury levels in fish by 50 percent.
The groups claim the FDA endangers public health by not giving people enough information about the dangers of mercury, especially from eating contaminated fish.
“The primary source of mercury exposure for humans in the United States is contaminated seafood, and one-third of mercury exposure comes from consumption of tuna,” the complaint states. “American seafood customers, especially women of childbearing age and children, continue to be exposed to potentially dangerous levels of mercury in commercial fish without adequate protection, information, or warning.”
Humans can absorb mercury through the air, as industrial pollution, and in its water-soluble form, methylmercury, which builds up in fish when it falls into the water and it absorbed by their tissues.
“Mercury in the form of methylmercury is a toxin that can cause birth defects and harm a child’s developing nervous system, leading to loss of motor skills and serious developmental delays. It can also cause kidney failure, cardiovascular collapse, and genetic damage in adults,” the complaint states.
Numerous studies have show that adults with high mercury exposure have increased risk for developing disease, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the complaint. Young women and children are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning.
“In a nationwide study, one in every ten women of childbearing age exceeded levels of mercury in their blood that may pose a risk to fetuses,” the complaint states.
“Low-income women, women of color, and economically disadvantaged children are often at a higher risk of mercury contamination due to lack of information and inclusion of high-mercury fish in national food programs.”
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act requires the FDA to regulate levels of “unsafe substances” in food, including mercury, by developing “action levels” for the substances.
The action level for mercury in seafood is 1 part per million but the plaintiffs say that is “insufficient to protect public health especially the most vulnerable populations.”
“Indeed, the EPA determined that an action level for mercury of 0.5 ppm for recreation and sport fish caught was necessary to protect women of childbearing age. Additionally, some fish such as swordfish and tuna regularly exceed the 1 ppm limit. Lack of rigorous testing and enforcement has increased the availability of high-mercury fish on the market. Consumers are often completely unaware of the toxic levels of mercury in these fish,” according to the complaint.
The groups want the FDA to reduce mercury’s action level to 0.5 ppm, to develop and implement a program to test fish for methylmercury, and to make seafood “distributors, retailers, restaurants, and all institutions that sell seafood to post the FDA/EPA mercury-in-fish advisory at ‘point-of-sale’ locations.”
“To serve its mission and protect public health, the FDA needs to reduce its mercury-in-fish action level to ensure that it protects even the most vulnerable segments of the population from mercury-tainted fish in the U.S. food supply.
The groups say they petitioned the EPA for this more than a year ago, and the EPA has not responded despite its 180-day deadline.
They ask the court to declare the FDA in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and to order it to respond to their petition within 30 days to protect public health
They are represented by Miyoko Sakashita with Center for Biological Diversity, and Deborah Sivas with The Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School.