06/12/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tuna Surprise


When I was a child, a tuna fish sandwich was my lunchbox staple. In college, I honed my culinary skills and shared crunchy tuna casseroles with my 'brave' new friends. This affordable concoction of canned tuna, mushroom soup, egg noodles topped with potato chips was the rave. As my tastes evolved, I learned to love the delicate art and delicious taste of tuna sushi.

Now tuna takes center stage again. Unfortunately, this time as a predominant source of methylmercury, a harmful neurotoxin.

Mercury gets emitted from coal-fired power plants. It drifts through the atmosphere and rains down on rivers, lakes and the ocean. In the water, bacteria convert the metal into toxic methylmercury, which builds up in the tissues of marine animals. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, mercury accumulates, so top predators like tuna, king mackerel and swordfish are the most contaminated. Here's a wonderful visual exemplifying how mercury works.

Since doctors advise pregnant women and women of child-bearing age to limit their tuna consumption, because eating tuna may put their unborn baby at risk of mercury poisoning, I assumed everyone knew the hardcore scoop about tuna.

Not so. Famed food writer, Mark Bittman admits in The New York Times, that he did not know the source of mercury poisoning. He asked the experts, and after talking with Moms Clean Air Force senior director, Dominique Browning, Bittman connected the dots between the air spewing out of coal-fired power plants and the tuna fish swimming in our waters.

"If you're like most people (including me, up until a month or two ago), you know that tuna and other top-of-the-food-chain fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers, especially, are warned off these fish. What you don't know, probably (I didn't), is the mercury's source, or how it gets in these fish.

Turns out that about three-quarters of it comes from coal-burning power plants; it dissolves in water, where micro-organisms convert it to methylmercury, a bio-available and highly toxic form that builds up in fish. The longer a fish lives, the more mercury builds in its flesh.

You could, of course, eat less big fish, but there are other sources of mercury: increasingly, it's being found in vegetables and especially grains like rice that are grown near older, and even no longer functioning, coal-burning plants.

It's another of those situations where individual solutions don't really cut it, because mercury is only one of about 80 (!) pollutants spewing from old-fashioned, unfiltered coal-burning plants[1]. And some of the toxins, which are deadly, are just plain unavoidable. Because, unlike mercury, they're not in tuna and rice. They're in the air.It was for these reasons that the journalist (and mother) Dominique Browning started Moms Clean Air Force. "When I was a young mother," she says, "and was told not to eat tuna, I didn't make the air-to-food connection; but it's outrageous that these issues are still being fought 21 years later. I was neither an environmentalist nor an activist, but I could no longer ignore important issues." ~ Mark Bittman

You would think all this mercury polluting would cause an outrage -- enough to put pressure on the power companies -- the ones we pay to provide us with electric and gas, so they would stop polluting our children with mercury. We did and we won with new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. But now the rule is being contested in courts by some of the worst polluting utilities in the country.

How dare these polluting utilities sue to protect their right to spew toxins into our air!

What's a tuna-lovin' mom to do? No tuna sandwiches for my family for now. And I won't sit idle while our children are poisoned by sickening lawsuits. Which is why I'm asking you to join thousands of parents who signed this petition telling polluters to fund clean air, not lawsuits!

Which is why I'm asking you to join thousands of parents who signed this petition telling polluters to fund clean air, not lawsuits.!


Cartoon: Liza Donnelly