Something fishy

August 10, 2004

FOR YEARS, it seems, the diet police have been all over us about eating more fish. High in protein, low in fat, these denizens of the deep were touted as a healthier alternative to steaks, burgers and fried chicken. Regular consumption of finfish, in particular, was said to be so healthy, in fact, it could improve cognitive ability - a real brain food.

Now comes the warning that it's not smart to eat a lot of fish, and some varieties shouldn't be eaten at all.

The difference is mercury, a naturally occurring element that is also pumped into the atmosphere from industrial smoke stacks. The federal government is moving for the first time to substantially curb mercury emissions from these sources, but with a deadline 14 years away, the timetable is far too slow.

Pregnant women and children, who under other circumstances would have the most to gain from a steady intake of low-fat brainfood, are the most at risk if they eat fish high in mercury, which is a toxin to developing brains. Federal and Maryland agencies both advise that many types of fish and shellfish should be eaten no more than once a week, and some, such as shark, swordfish and tilefish, should be avoided altogether.

The most recent information comes from an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and other environmental advocacy organizations. It concluded that most fish caught from freshwater lakes and reservoirs around the country were contaminated with levels of mercury that would be dangerous to pregnant women and children if they followed the heart-healthy advice to eat two servings of fish a week.

Critics have quibbled that these are not official EPA findings, and that the farm-raised fish often found in supermarkets don't carry the same mercury risk.

That's not very reassuring, though, to the families of sports fishermen, who are told by EPA that that the bigger the fish, the greater the danger. Or to crab lovers in the Baltimore area, who are advised by Maryland's Department of the Environment to avoid the mercury-laden "mustard" in crustaceans caught locally.

EPA estimates a third of the mercury that falls from the air into the water and winds up in fish comes from coal-fired power plants. And, according to Maryland's Public Interest Research Group, three of the top 100 worst polluting plants are located in this state, including the one at Brandon Shores, in northern Anne Arundel County, which ranks 24th.

The Bush administration has proposed requiring such plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 70 percent as of 2018, but won't put the requirement into effect until March - after it weighs public comments.

The official comment period on the proposed regulations closed in June, but it's not too late to urge the government to speed up the cleanup.

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