06/14/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

What's Really Poisoning Us? Phony Health Scares

If you've been eating seafood with any regularity, it's a miracle you're still able to read this -- according to some activists posting on the Huffington Post. You've been poisoned by mercury, and you're suffering from brain damage, vision problems and numbness in your fingers. Makes logging onto the Internet very difficult.

The average American eats barely five ounces of seafood a week, far less than in many other countries. And U.S. and international experts unequivocally recommend people eat more seafood for their health. But activists don't care what doctors and nutritionists recommend. They're more interested in ginning up a good scare.

A public interest lawyer pens an article: "Mercury Bigger Worry Than Radiation in Tuna." A chef warns that when "mercury makes it to your dinner table... that's where the problem starts."

And in an article (very modestly) headlined, "A Worried Mother Does Better Research Than the FBI," an activist details her concerns: "Toxic Air Pollution," "Toxic Chemicals in Our Stuff" and "Food Contamination" -- aka, mercury in fish. "These are things that get to our children -- no matter where they are, whom they are with, and what they are doing," she ominously writes.

So what's going on here? Why all the dire warnings?

Andrew Sharpless, chief executive of activist organization Oceana, explains that scaring the daylights out of Americans is the easiest route to raising concerns about the environment. "People start to care much more, and understand the threat to the ocean, when you tell them that their tuna fish is contaminated," he said. "It's a dramatic eye-opening moment for people."

That may be cynical, but it's also savvy. If people won't pay sufficient attention to activists' agenda, then rattle 'em at the dinner table. Problem is, people aren't eating enough seafood as it is. Of course, as a trade group for commercial fishermen, that's what we are expected to say.

But is also happens to be the considered opinion of dietitians, the FDA and every major medical group. Per capita consumption of seafood is stagnant despite a growing population. And, although two servings of fish per week is optimal for a healthy diet, most Americans get nowhere near that amount -- which is having a measurable, negative public health impact.

Hyperbole and tough tactics are nothing new in the public health discourse known as the "food wars." But the fights over soft drinks and junk food carry an important distinction -- there's no harm in removing those foods from your diet. But families that curtail or eliminate fish at mealtimes miss out on key nutrients like omega-3s -- which every major health organization says are essential for good health and development.

A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that some 84,000 lives could be saved every year if Americans ate more fish and the special omega-3s it contains. Another long-term study showed that children whose moms cut back on seafood during pregnancy had significantly lower developmental and IQ outcomes.

In years past, it was common-sense axiom for parents that fish is "brain food." Now they have to make sense of Huffington Post articles that scream "How Long Will We Let Them Poison Our Kids?"

But is any of this doomsaying backed up by medical evidence of actual, diagnosed illness? Are the nation's hospitals packed with tuna fish eaters? On both counts, no. Informing the public of the hard fact that not a single published, peer-reviewed, medical journal in this country has an example of an American suffering from mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood, much less died from it, would spoil the narrative.

In fact, peer-reviewed science confirms that the trace levels of mercury found in commercial seafood is by-in-large naturally occurring and originates from underwater volcanoes. All fish in the ocean contain minute levels of mercury -- they always have and always will. But it's important to know that the 10 most popular fish Americans enjoy today are low in mercury and fall well within the U.S. government's very conservative safety guidelines.

Seafood offers enormous health benefits. To suggest otherwise is simply misinformed -- and harms those it purports to help. False-alarm health crises -- from arsenic in apple juice to the debunked dangers of vaccines -- all speak to the public health damage done when activists drive an agenda intended to frighten instead of the facts intended to inform.

When you read these dire warnings, consider the source. Remember, these are activists with an agenda sounding the alarm bells -- not nutritionists. And since you're clearly not suffering from brain damage, you know better than to trust an activist for nutrition advice.

Gavin Gibbons is the director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, a non-profit trade association representing commercial fishermen.