ANCHORAGE - A consumer magazine hit the newsstands this month, telling readers not to eat halibut because a single meal a month has too much mercury, a toxin that can cause neurological and other health problems.
Not so, say Alaska health officials. They've studied available data and concluded that any Alaskan - pregnant or not, young or old - can eat as much fish as they want, so long as it comes from Alaska waters. That includes cod, salmon, pollock - even halibut.
"Alaska fish, by and large, have very low levels of mercury, especially Alaska salmon," said environmental epidemiologist Tracey Lynn. "They have some of the lowest levels that are ever recorded."
Lynn and Bob Gerlach, who oversees the state's fish-monitoring project, were surprised to see that Health magazine's June edition said to avoid halibut. The magazine is published for millions of readers nationwide. A graphic in the article called "Your Deadly Diet" tells consumers which fish they should eat in unlimited quantities and which they should avoid. Halibut was spurned, along with shark and swordfish, for high mercury levels.
Here's the problem, according to state health officials: A reader in New York often eats fish from different waters than a reader in Mississippi or a reader in Alaska. A national fish advisory, therefore, doesn't always apply to Alaska fish.
A couple of years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency tried to made national recommendations for fish. Alaska's health officials objected. They argued that federal recommendations were based on fish sampled from the eastern United States, not from Alaska.
State health officials contacted the FDA, which revised its recommendations to say fish advisories will vary by region and that people should contact their local health departments for appropriate advice, Lynn said. That's when Alaska's health department came out with its statement advocating unlimited consumption of fish from Alaska waters.
Several state departments are double-checking that recommendation, though.
The state Section of Epidemiology is engaged in an ongoing study examining mercury levels from hair samples clipped from pregnant women.
In 1999, Epidemiology reported a limited amount of data regarding mercury levels in Alaska fish. Today, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and several other agencies are finishing a study of about 600 fish taken from more than a dozen sites in Alaska and a dozen fish species. The study will look at levels of mercury, as well as other contaminants, including PCBs and pollutants. Preliminary results could be available by mid-summer, Lynn and Gerlach said.
Measuring safe levels of mercury in fish is a confusing business because several organizations follow different standards. The FDA, for example, focuses on mercury levels in commercially sold fish. It says the safe level of mercury in fish is 1 part per million or less.
The EPA and the World Health Organization, however, focus on mercury levels in human hair. The EPA's safe level is 1.2 ppm in hair. The WHO says the level of concern is 10 ppm in hair of pregnant women, Lynn said.
Fish always will have some level of mercury in their tissues because some mercury is emitted naturally from the earth's crust, volcanos and other sources, Gerlach said. Mercury, however, also comes from man-made sources, such as coal-burning plants, mining activities and industrial emissions, according to the state Section of Epidemiology.
Fish - some species more so than others - are an ideal source of omega fatty acids needed for healthy living, pregnancies and baby development, Lynn said. Fish also are low in saturated fat, but high in protein and nutrients.
The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults should eat at least two servings of fish each week, saying omega-3 fatty acids from fish promote heart health.
Dr. Jim Berner, director of community health with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said his studies of maternal blood have shown higher mercury levels in Alaska Native mothers than in other U.S. women of childbearing ages. The mean blood mercury level for the almost 200 Alaska Native women studied was 2.89 micrograms per liter, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the national average for women of childbearing age was 1.02. Still, Berner said the Alaska Native number doesn't concern him.
"It's many orders of magnitude lower than the lowest place where anybody's seen an effect (on babies and young children)," he said.
Plus, Alaska Native mothers have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to fetal development, he said. Berner doesn't recommend limiting consumption of commonly eaten fish from Alaska waters.
Berner, Lynn and Gerlach countered another statement from the Health magazine article about Alaska Natives. The article said Alaska's Inuit people subsisting on fish are thought to be among the most mercury-contaminated populations on the planet.
"That's certainly not what we have found," Lynn said. "It's not supported by any data that I'm aware of."
People who want to learn more about mercury levels can watch for the results from Alaska's hair and fish studies. The state's fish study will be published at www.state.ak.us/dec/deh/contaminants.htm when the preliminary data is available. For the hair studies, visit www.akepi.org, click on "Bulletins" and then "Mercury." Pregnant women who want to participate in the free hair studies can call 269-8000 for more information.