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Richard Wiles Headshot

Bamboozled on Fish

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It is one thing to report both sides of a story. It is quite another to be bamboozled by an industry PR campaign passing off self-serving "science" as new public health research.

Last week the fish industry bamboozled a credulous gaggle of the national news media into reporting an industry-supported "study" claiming that pregnant women should disregard the Food and Drug Administration's advice to eat no more than 12 ounces a week of mercury-contaminated fish during pregnancy. As dutifully reported by The Washington Post (on the front page), ABC.com, Reuters, NBC's Today show, and dozens of other outlets, the study concluded that pregnant women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish a week, including fish FDA says pregnant women should not eat at all.

Mercury is serious business, a potent neurotoxin. There is universal scientific agreement that seafood is the main source of elevated mercury in the blood of American women, and that limiting consumption of fish that are high in mercury during pregnancy is sound public health policy. The FDA, which certainly does not rush to recommend against eating specific foods, has issued two mercury health advisories since 2001. The agency's advice is clear: Pregnant women, and women who are thinking about becoming pregnant, should eat no more than 12 ounces of fish per week, no more than six ounces of albacore tuna, and no shark, tuna, mackerel, or swordfish at all.

Faced with scientific consensus and a government advisory, what was the seafood industry to do? They do what all industry's do: hire expensive K St. lobbyists and pour millions into creating a fake controversy, arguing that the benefits of certain nutrients in fish outweigh the risks of mercury, and that therefore women should eat unlimited amounts of even the most mercury-contaminated fish.

Many in the news media swallowed this nonsense hook, line and sinker, without bothering to ask common-sense questions that National Public Radio and Bloomberg News were thoughtful enough to pursue. Their basic questions about funding for the report revealed that the fish industry paid $74,000 to cover the panel's travel expenses and website development costs, and website development costs. A little more digging showed that the vice chairman of the coalition that produced the "study" works for the K Street lobbying and PR operation, Burson Marsteller.

Not a single independent public health or scientific authority agrees with this piece of lobbyist-funded propaganda. Not the American Academy of Pediatrics, not the National Academy of Sciences, and not the Food and Drug Administration. What the real experts agree on is that mercury-laden fish should be avoided because they present a real health threat to the developing baby, and that women should seek other low mercury sources of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Skipping over substance and writing simplistic "he said-she said" stories is how the news media failed us on global warming. For years when we should have been solving the global warming problem, the media insisted on giving equal billing to a handful of coal and oil industry-funded "skeptics," creating the illusion that there was a split among the experts about global warming and its causes, when none existed. Many in the media appear poised to repeat this disaster with mercury.

Our organization is in the business of researching chemical threats to human health and fighting to improve protections when they are supported by the science. When we release a report, we expect and welcome thorough scrutiny from reporters and independent experts about our findings, methodology and funding. When a non-peer reviewed "study" recommends dramatically increasing pregnant women's consumption of mercury above guidelines from FDA and leading medical organizations, shouldn't the same standards apply?

There is no controversy about whether pregnant women should avoid fish high in mercury, and reporting this fabricated controversy is more than factually wrong, is irresponsible and downright dangerous. If mothers-to-be actually followed the industry's advice there would be an epidemic of mercury-damaged children in this country.

The news media owe us not just the straight truth about mercury, but an examination of how K Street got America's journalistic elite to believe such a whopper of a fish story.

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