Most Americans will eventually find themselves confused by what seems to be a steady stream of contradictory results regarding the results of medical studies that, for one reason or another, find their way onto the pages of the local newspaper or the evening news. Whether the news media will accurately report these findings is another matter.
The above paragraph, and this posting, was inspired by an item 1 that found its way to my inbox as part of a regular update regarding the professional literature in the field of cardiology (of several such news services and RSS feeds, I personally prefer and subscribe to Heartwire, which is published by WebMD). It concerned a story published in the October 18, 2006 edition of the New York Times in which columnist Marian Burros 2 appears to have taken a bit more than “literary license” concerning the results of two studies 3, 4 which examined the health benefits and potential risks that may arise from eating seafood.
The studies in question were published within a day of each other, addressed the same question, and arrived at essentially the same conclusions. Both examined the potential health benefits associated with regular consumption of fish and seafoods weighted against the potential health risks that may arise from fish and seafood contaminated with mercury, dioxin, or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The studies were in agreement that diets including regular servings of fish or seafoods known to be rich in “fish oils” such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs,) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were associated with up to a 36% decrease in the risk of death from coronary heart disease and a 17% reduction in total year to year mortality.
The reports made a minor divergence in agreement regarding potential risks, particularly in pregnancy and to the infants of nursing mothers, related to foods that may be contaminated with the substances noted above. However, these divergences are easily explained by the different missions and target audiences of the agencies involved.
The first report was produced by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences operating in an advisory role by providing research data to different regulatory agencies at the federal level. Its report, which is some 400 pages in length and heavily weighted toward environmental issues, expressed reservations regarding an unqualified endorsement of fish and seafood due to concerns regarding environmental pollution in the waters where the foods were caught.
The second report, produced by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association 5, was more clinically oriented and its authors drew the unambiguous conclusion that not only were seafoods a valuable addition to regular diets but that “Avoidance of modest fish consumption due to confusion regarding risks and benefits could result in thousands of excess CHD deaths annually and suboptimal neurodevelopment in children …”
Then Marian Burros of the New York Times apparently decided that she would clarify the issue in a manner more in line with her own opinions.
In her column of October 18 Ms. Burros, after incorrectly identifying the Institute of Medicine as part of the National Institutes of Health, included both remarks within the published studies as well as direct quotes from the authors and “advocacy groups.” She then took the one minor difference and distorted it to a point that even the authors of the studies would have trouble recognizing it.
Burros: “Both reports have come under criticism from environmental groups and from the Consumers Union.” A search of the Consumer’s Union “News” web pages, as well as a search of academic databases, fails to find any evidence of such a statement.
Burros: “Jane Houlihanof the Environmental Working Group said ‘the Harvard study reads like an advertisement for the seafood industry.'” More precisely, the Environmental Working Group’s statement says that “An Environmental Working Group analysis shows that if women followed this advice, more than 90% of all pregnancies would be exposed to mercury above the government’s safe dose, or reference dose (RfD).” In actuality, at no point in either study is there any advice that, if followed, would expose anyone to high doses of mercury.
Rather than bore you with details, the notes below identify the sources used in the preparation of this posting. Just remember that just because you saw it in the newspaper is no guarantee that it’s an accurate account.
Same-day release upstages reports on health effects of eating fish.” Heartwire. Accessed October 20, 2006.
2. Burros, M. “One study calls fish a lifesaver, another is more cautious.” New York Times, October 18, 2006.
NationalAcademy of Sciences. Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks, executive summary. Available from http://fermat.nap.edu/execsumm_pdf/11762.pdf. Accessed October 20, 2006.
JAMA 2006; 296:1885-1899.
5.The Journal of the American Medical Association, although it publishes many “basic sciences” reports, is and always has been concerned with the clinical aspects of medicine. Notably, it does not sponsor research own but merely publishes the results submitted by independent researchers. This may be a partial explanation for the differences noted in the conclusions drawn by the two reports.
The information presented in this article and its included links is of an informational nature only and is not intended as a recommendation of any changes in the reader’s health care program. Before making any changes in diet, medications, or other treatments the reader is strongly advised to consult with their health care provider.