FDA's claims don't add up
Last night, our recent scientific paper on Gulf seafood safety was featured on Anderson Cooper's 360*. It's a nice piece, and is worth watching, since it highlights the ongoing crisis in the Gulf fisheries, and the ongoing disagreements about seafood safety. But I was distressed to hear FDA's Robert Dickey's statements on the show, He claimed (without any substantiating evidence) that:
1) “The seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to consume for all consumers including pregnant women and children;” and
2) “the amount of seafood that somebody would have to eat would be the equivalent to sixty-three pounds of shrimp, or five pounds of oyster, or nine pounds of fin fish every day for five years before they would exceed levels to be concerned of. That’s how low the residues are in the seafood.”
The FDA's comments are simply not consistent with the reality. Here's the rest of the story:
Reality: FDA only examined what would be safe for an adult. When they did their calculations they looked at what level of contamination would be safe for a 176 pound person. Children are known to be more vulnerable to contaminants in seafood because they eat more per pound of their bodyweight and their developing bodies are more sensitive to harmful contaminants. What’s more, in a pregnant woman, these contaminants can cross the placenta and harm the developing fetus. This increased vulnerability is well known to science, and other agencies require that children be included in safety assessments.
How can FDA claim Gulf seafood is safe for children and pregnant women when they didn’t do the evaluation required by other agencies?
Then there's the jaw-dropping FDA claim that people can eat sixty-three pounds of shrimp, or five pounds of oyster, or nine pounds of fin fish every day for five years before they would exceed levels of concern. Where did that come from?
Reality: FDA generated these numbers based on the same faulty science they used to evaluate the seafood in the first place. Here’s a run-down of the assumptions:
1) These numbers are for adults only and don’t include the special sensitivity of children or the developing fetus.
2) FDA continues to assume that people eat only one kind of seafood at a time, instead of a normal combination of fish, shrimp, and oysters.
3) FDA ignores the cancer causing impact of the most common contaminant from oil - naphthalene - even though it was listed as a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program.
4) FDA insists the contamination will only stick around for 5 years despite the science from previous oil spills.
5) FDA has says that it is OK for contaminated seafood to cause an extra 10 cancers per million people. For previous oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez, they said it was only OK to have 1 excess cancer per million people.
These faulty assumptions mean that FDA’s calculations don’t make sense and can’t be used to say that seafood is safe.
Using up-to-date scientific methods to assess seafood safety we found that 53% of the shrimp tested by NOAA and 26% of shrimp tested by FDA could pose a risk to a child in-utero if the mother ate a Gulf shellfish-rich diet that includes 0.6 pounds of (or about 14 jumbo) shrimp per week while she was pregnant and then continues to feed seafood to her kid when they are older - including 0.3 pounds of (about 7 jumbo) shrimp per week. Our calculation assumes that people eat a variety of shellfish including: (adult) - 0.3 pounds of crab and 0.2 pounds of oysters per week (child) – 0.15 pounds of crab and 0.1 pounds of oysters per week.That's a far cry from the 63 pounds of shrimp that FDA claims is safe.
The fact remains that FDA's numbers don't make sense, aren't consistent with current scientific practices, and won't protect the health of pregnant women and children. It wouldn't be hard for FDA to fix their calcuations and set an appropriate limit for contaminants in seafood. We petitioned the agency to do just that. I'm still hoping they'll respond to our petition and do the right thing.