Study: High mercury levels in market fish

Carrs-Safeway store in Anchorage among supermarkets sampled

Posted: Friday, September 16, 2005

ANCHORAGE - High concentrations of mercury were found in store-bought swordfish in Alaska and 21 other states targeted in a study released Thursday by environmental groups.

A Carrs-Safeway store in Anchorage was among the supermarkets sampled in the analysis led by advocacy group Oceana. Mercury levels from the three Alaska samples were below the threshold the government uses to determine whether legal action can be started to remove the fish from shelves.

Elevated levels of mercury were found by a University of North Carolina lab in samples of fresh swordfish from Safeway, Albertsons and other chains collected in 22 states in July and August, Oceana said. Fresh tuna also was collected in some of the states, but not in Alaska.

Average levels for the swordfish samples were 1.1 parts per million, an amount just over the government's actionable limit of 1.0, according to Oceana. When mercury levels exceed that limit, the Food and Drug Administration can resort to legal action.

Three half-pound swordfish steaks were collected by members of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics from the Carrs-Safeway Aurora Village store on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage. The store was chosen because it is close to the office of the Anchorage-based group, which had only a limited time to collect the samples, executive director Pam Miller said.

Officials with Carrs-Safeway in Anchorage and with Safeway in California declined comment. Instead, reporters were referred to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute.

All three Alaska samples fell below the government level. The highest Alaska sample was .903 parts per million; the lowest was .503 parts per million.

Those levels are still too high, particularly for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children, Miller said. The Alaska levels all exceed the federal government's earlier limit of 0.5 parts per million, according to Miller.

"There really is no safe exposure level to mercury," Miller said.

Everyone, however, should be wary of any level of mercury found in food - even the lowest Alaska sample level, said Jim Ayers, Juneau-based director of Oceana's Pacific region office.

"It shows an accumulation of mercury is being transmitted," Ayers said. "Mercury accumulates up the food chain. The higher you are on the food chain - and humans are certainly up there - the more bio-accumulation there is of this toxin."

Ayers said the group hopes the study will pressure stores to post signs industrywide warning shoppers of health risks from mercury. Oceana also hopes to persuade states to make such information mandatory.

The Food Marketing Institute said some supermarkets already provide information to consumers and others are working on it.

"I think we'll be seeing more information and signs at the point of purchase, giving consumers FDA guidelines," said Karen Brown, a senior vice president of the institute, an industry group.

States have no jurisdiction over interstate commerce regulated by the federal government, said John Middaugh, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Health Department. But officials here rigorously monitor Alaska products, including fish such as halibut and salmon.

"Fortunately, our wild fish is generally way below levels of concern, especially in all species of salmon," Middaugh said. "Given the benefits of fish consumption and given the levels actually being measured in Alaska, people shouldn't be scared off from eating fish. Fish is too nutritious."

Concentrations of mercury have been linked to organ damage in adults, and developmental and learning disabilities in children. According to federal guidelines, children, pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid fish with higher levels of mercury, such as swordfish, tuna and shark.

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