by Marion Nestle
Aug 26 2009

Oh great. All U.S. fish are contaminated with mercury.

My book, What to Eat, has a chapter on the mercury-in-fish dilemma.   Do we follow dietary guidelines to eat more fish or do we worry about the amount of toxic methylmercury those fish might have?

The U.S. Geological Survey and Department of the Interior have just released a report that will not make this dilemma easier to resolve.     Fish in every one of 291 streams sampled throughout the country are contaminated with mercury.  According to the press release, the good (well, slightly better) news is that “only” a quarter of the samples exceeded federal guidelines for people eating average amounts of fish.

Where does the mercury come from?  “Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States — but 59 of the streams also were potentially affected by gold and mercury mining.”

The remedy seems pretty obvious: let’s insist that coal-burning power plants and mining operations clean up their emissions.   How about right now!

  • I agree in totality! We need to take measures to reduce the emissions & pollutants from the refineries polluting the environment to save life.

  • Hylton

    Further, we can no longer have conversations about “dietary guidelines to eat more fish” without addressing the very serious plight of world fisheries.

  • susanne

    hopefully under the obama administration, the EPA can get back to regulating mercury emissions.

  • Janet Camp

    A compromise (until things get cleaned up–hopefully) might be to eat farmed fish–only if done in a responsible way. Here in Milwaukee, we have someone addressing this need:

    “Aquaculture is the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a re-circulating system. Growing Power uses Tilapia and Yellow Perch to fertilize a variety of crops and herbs using aquaponics. Currently, we have three Tilapia systems and six Yellow Perch aquaponics systems in our greenhouses at our urban farm in Milwaukee.

    Aquaponics is the method of growing crops and fish together in a re-circulating system. In the Growing Power aquaponics model crops grow vertically on raised beds.”

    The man who founded and runs this org is Will Allen, a former basketball player and a recent MacArthur genius award winner. The farm is in the inner city. It provides produce to that community as well as to restaurants, subscribers and the coop.

    The fish are just one aspect of the operation (see website). Also, another business is starting up using the same method. This is a godsend environmentally, but also for a west coaster transplanted here some years ago and yearning for truly fresh fish!

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  • Hylton

    Janet, the criticism of fish farming is scathing, as there are many environmental issues yet to be worked out. Honestly, I’m not sure where the truth lies between environmental critics and farmed fish marketing, but I’d be hesitant to recommend farmed fish outright.

    Mercury contamination is still a problem for farmed fish as well since the fish livestock are often fed wild caught fish by-catch (that is contaminated) and famed fish are often raised in or uses public water (that is contaminated).

    There is contention that farmed fish may have higher mercury contamination and the arguments against factory confinement holds true for fish as well since they may be given antibiotics to encourage growth and keep disease at bay.

    Again, I’m uncertain as to the degrees of fact, hyperbole or speculation and I have no idea what the solutions are, but that’s why I feel that it’s so important to bring up the topic to further discussion.

    We cannot afford to determine food choices solely in terms of personal health.

  • Bobby

    Oh the irony.
    How many happy healthy-eating people are on their computers right now being powered by a coal powered electricity generator?

    If marion think food politics is incestuous, then energy politics is food-politics on steroids, er, turbocharged. And that says noting about the impending collapse of humanity from climate change. I’ve read credible sources that we will need to reduce our energy consumption to a mere 10% of our current energy consumption. Will we have the brains to save ourselves? I don’t think so because this is a problem that we can’t buy our way out of, unlike the example of people paying more for organic. No, there is no real lifestyle sacrifice with organic, but if you don’t want mercury in your food, or say, the desertification of the oceans (yes we can!) then some REAL sacrifice to the US hyperconsumption model is on the horizon (unless you vote republican, a party whose leadership model never, ever promote personal sacrifice (esp about energy consumption, because how else would Americans show off how rich we are, i.e. how much money (earth’s resources, etc) we can waste –reference Steven Colbert channeling, thorsten veblen, bless their hearts) as the solution to anything).

    Short answer: we’re doomed. (Oh, nuclear energy? Let me repeat: we’re doomed!)

    (speaking of doomed, as a canadian, I’m waiting for the day when the American military invades us for water, arable land, oil/energy, or arctic resources, which I fully expect to occur in my lifetime, but I digress)

  • This is a perfect example of “externalities” and how financial accounting measurements fall short of the information we need as a market-driven economy to make good decisions on how to best use resources. Instead of the coal producers being force to account for the actual costs of its business, instead it PUSHES the costs onto the taxpayers. This actually distorts the market and collective decision-making.

  • Larry

    Coal energy is the absolute worst! Seems to me by the time clean coal arrives we’ll have better alternatives. In the interim, natural gas should replace new coal plants until alternative energy becomes cost effective.

    Hylton, backyard fish farming is the way to go. Check local municipal lab reports for water quality. Use quality feed!! Look into it.

    That growing power website is very inspiring!! Marion, you should blog on it.

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  • James

    Bobby says: “(speaking of doomed, as a canadian, I’m waiting for the day when the American military invades us for water, arable land, oil/energy, or arctic resources, which I fully expect to occur in my lifetime, but I digress)”

    Well… it’s us or the Russians – Volodya and Dmitri are casting covetous glances at your polar regions.

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