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Susan Egan Keane’s Blog

A New Global Picture on Mercury in Fish

Susan Egan Keane

Posted December 4, 2012

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Most people have heard warnings to limit or avoid eating certain kinds of fish that may have relatively high levels of mercury.  Today the Biodiversity Research Institute released a new report, compiled from scientific studies around the globe, that paints a more comprehensive picture than ever of widespread mercury contamination in fish and other marine life, including species that are popular on our dinner plates. 

But complicating this picture is the fact that fish is a very healthy food – a source of lean protein and heart-healthy omega 3s – so it’s smart to make fish a regular part of your diet.  To balance the benefits with possible mercury risks, people are often told to eat more fish but to choose low-mercury varieties. 

While this is good advice, it frames the issue in the wrong way.  Instead of balancing mercury exposure against the nutritional benefits, how about we stop polluting fish with mercury in the first place!  Thousands of tons of mercury pour into the global environment every year, with big contributions from coal-fired power, metal mining and processing (especially small scale gold mining), and cement production. Mercury is also still found in some consumer products and in old-fashioned industrial processes. (Remember mercury thermometers? They’re hard to find now in the US but still popular in developing countries). 

The US has come a long way in the past decades to address its own sources of mercury pollution but the US can’t solve this problem on its own.   That’s because mercury is a global pollutant –it can travel through the atmosphere to a location thousands of miles away from where it is emitted, without respect or regard for national boundaries. 

Fortunately the world community has come to grips with the global nature of the mercury problem and since 2009 has been negotiating an international agreement to control mercury pollution.  So far the negotiations have been slow going. What's the hold up? We already have the technology to manage mercury pollution -- we know how to control mercury emissions, and there are mercury-free alternatives for nearly all mercury-containing products and industrial processes.  What’s missing is an aggressive and coordinated effort among nations to put these controls and alternatives in place.  The final treaty negotiation session, scheduled for January in Geneva, is the last chance for countries to create a strong framework of international law against mercury pollution.  Fish lovers everywhere will be watching closely.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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