Eating fish is an important part of good nutrition. They are a good source of protein and are low in saturated fats, they contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that contribute to lowered cholesterol levels, they help to reduce high blood pressure and prevent coronary artery disease. And they are fun to eat! Just ask the relatives at the next salmon barbeque, clam bake, or fish fry.
Many people are concerned about the safety of fish consumption. Mercury contamination is a national concern, addressed by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. The FDA deals with commercially caught and sold fish and seafood while the EPA handles recreational fishing issues. As long ago as the 1970’s, America and the world became caught up in the awareness of PCB contamination.
According to http://www.healthCastle.com an internet source for nutrition information, most fish and even some shellfish and seafood contain certain amounts of mercury. They report that for most of us eating fish with these trace amounts of mercury poses no health risk, but there are those for whom this does not hold true, most notably, unborn infants and small children.
Fish found in certain areas reportedly may carry varying amounts of PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls). Banned in 1976, these industrial compounds persist in the environment and find their way in fish through absorption of contaminated sediments and food sources. Humans can rid their bodies of mercury over a period of time but PCB’s remain stored in human body fats for many years.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency revised their mercury contamination advisories for fish in March of 2004. Here are their new recommendations:
• Pregnant women, women who are planning to become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children should avoid eating some types of fish altogether and eat only those fish that are known to have lower to no levels of mercury.
• Shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish all are known to have high levels of mercury and should be avoided by those who are most at risk. (see first category above)
• People in the first category above should eat not more than 12 ounces of the following types of fish and shellfish per week:
– Crab, cod, clams, scallops, catfish, pollock, shrimp, canned salmon, canned light tuna.ï¿½
– Note: Albacore or white tuna should be limited to not more than one 6 ounce meal per week due to high mercury levels.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org, has a list of fish to avoid rated from the highest levels of mercury toxins, like shark, swordfish, etc, to the lowest like calamari, sturgeon, oysters, freshwater trout, ocean going (sea) perch, flounder, whitefish, herring, and shad. These lowest rated fish can be eaten without due concern for toxins, in most cases.
The Natural Resources Defense Council also reports that farmed salmon may contain PCB’s. Use your own judgment when deciding whether or not to eat these fish.
There are many possible sources of mercury contamination. Two of the biggest are chlorine chemical plants that use mercury to extract chlorine from salt, and coal fired power plants. It should be noted that ongoing research and development in the power generation industry is addressing pollution standards and methods of reducing or eliminating polluting chemicals as a result of power generation. This effort got a boost when President George Bush signed legislation in 2002 supporting ongoing research and development specifically aimed at coal fired power generation.
Most states post fish consumption advisories. You can usually find that information by searching for your state’s Department of Health website on the internet. Many states also have that information in their fish and game pamphlets.
Fishing clubs like the North American Fishing Club, http://www.fishingclub.com can usually supply information about contaminated fish in a particular area.
There are some important considerations in preparing fish for a meal.
• You should eat younger, smaller fish as opposed to larger fish.
• Avoid eating bottom feeding fish when possible as they are more likely to contain higher levels of chemical contamination.
• Before cooking, remove the skin, fat and internal organs, including the head.
• Cook the fish in such a way that the fat drips off and away, i.e. grilling, broiling, etc
The EPA has a fish advisory newsletter, http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advisories/newsletter.htm where you can get all the government’s latest science, communication and health issues related to fish contamination.
For more information about eating contaminated fish call the FDA’s food information hotline toll free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety website at