Get Garcia: How Mercurial is Your Fish?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set an acceptable level for mercury in fish, but a Get Garcia investigation discovered some slabs of fish contain more-than-acceptable amounts of the element, and many toe the line.

MORE: Get Garcia Team Uncovers The Fish Fake-Out

The Get Garcia team went shopping for seafood to get some answers. First stop, we met with David McGuire who works with God Mercury, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect people and the planet from mercury.

McGuire helped us collect a random sampling of fish and we sent them to the University of San Francisco to test their mercury levels.

“We feel that the entire population should be aware of what the risks are with eating mercury and fish,” McGuire said.

Eating fish packs healthy Omega 3’s, but it can also pack a big dose of the chemical element that can have potentially detrimental health effects.

“There is nothing you can do to remove it. It’s not like cooking it will remove it,” said Allison Luengen, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco.

We went to a fish market on the coast, to a sushi restaurant and to brand name markets in Los Angeles and Burbank, purchasing fish from sea bass to tuna. Next, we sent our samples to the University of San Francisco to find out how many would clock in below the FDA level of one part per million.

After testing the samples, Luengen and her graduate students discovered that some fish weren’t meeting the FDA guidelines.

“We found that all three of our swordfish samples were higher than the 1ppm which is the FDA guideline,” Luengen said.

It did not seem to matter where it was bought or where it was caught. One swordfish sample was from Australia, another from Indonesia and the third was caught off the coast of Los Angeles.

One tuna sample, Big Eye tuna sushi, had a mercury level of .97 parts per million, barely below the FDA level.

But what exactly does “parts per million” mean?

It’s the equivalent of putting 4 drops of ink into a 55 gallon barrel of water. At that level, this doesn’t sound like much mercury, but does that make it safe to eat?

The FDA first set the standard level of mercury at .5. However, when the agency tried to take swordfish from the market place because it was high in mercury, a food distributor sued and won. The FDA then raised the limit to 1ppm. That was in 1978.

The agency has not tried to remove any fish since, even fish that contain more than 1ppm of mercury.

“People are not getting mercury poisoned as we’ve heard before from fish that is currently in the market,” said Gavin Gibbons, who works with the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group for the fishing industry.

But Dr. Joseph Schiabarrassi, who specializes in holistic medicine, disagrees with Gibbons, and says that people are in fact getting sick from eating the mercury in fish.

Schiabarrassi said that if someone eats fish every day, they are consuming between one and 10 micrograms of mercury on average every day.
“That is cumulative and the end result of that over a long period of time is that mercury levels will become quite elevated,” Schiabbarrassi said. “We know that even low levels can be toxic for some people.”

Tests show that a patient who ate sushi multiple times a week displayed an elevated mercury level that decreased after she stopped eating so much sushi.

The body can eliminate mercury, but it can take months, and sometimes even years. Symptoms include:

1. Insomnia
2. Inability to concentrate
3. Impaired peripheral vision
4. Metallic taste in the mouth

Mercury may so cause cancer. Both the EPA and International Agency for Cancer Research classify methyl mercury found in fish as a possible human carcinogen.

So how do fish eaters balance the good and the bad? Experts advise eating fewer large fish like swordfish and shark and instead eat smaller fish, like shrimp and tilapia, salmon and sardines.

Smaller fish have less mercury because they don’t live long enough to accumulate large amounts, and some fish retailers and restaurants are now using fish tested by Safe Harbor, a company that certifies that the fish contain low levels of mercury.

“Perhaps 3 servings a week of fish that are ocean caught, cold water fatty fish is a good thing. It probably lowers heart disease,” said Dr. Schiabbarrassi.

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