Editor’s Note: Some articles that were written as much as 21 years ago will be posted as they become relevant to issues of today. The following article was published by SUA in July, 1993.
MERCURY IN FISH, ANOTHER UNREPORTED HOAX
BY JAMES BOB GRESHAM
I must say fervently that I am in favor of a clean and safe environment and regulations that are designed to keep it that way. But, I am against correcting an exaggerated or non-existent hazard.
I am against the type of fishing that kills dolphins, hunters who kill elephants for ivory, and wanton disposal of proven dangerous substances, but I am strongly opposed to the surrender of our federal government to the radical environmentalists of the “Disaster Lobby” who petition and protest for extreme measures that go far beyond anything considered reasonable and place a financial burden on the public far exceeding the benefits and our ability to pay.
Many of us remember the mercury-in-fish scare, but few have heard why the warnings stopped.
In 1970 and 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Drug Administration (FDA) advised people not to eat fish taken from various waterways because of the levels of mercury found in the flesh of fish.
On a local level, fish markets closed, fish farms were started to provide fish for restaurants, and many people were afraid to swim in lakes and rivers.
On a national level millions of cans of tuna were impounded, species such as swordfish were banned from restaurants, and sales of fish plummeted.
The Disaster Lobby and the cooperative elements of the media informed the nation fully and graphically about how industry had cruelly and criminally polluted our waters with mercury. We did not hear why the scare went away or why the radical Greens quit talking about mercury in fish. The answer is in the following short story.
In early 1970, Canadian college students caught fish in Lake St. Claire northeast of Detroit. With the help of a college professor they analyzed their catch and found measurable amounts of mercury in the flesh, a little over one half part per million. This launched the scare.
In bold headlines American industry was charged with poisoning our waterways. The uninformed public wrote thousands of letters to Congress demanding that mercury use be banned. The FDA banned the sale of some fish and even the United Nations was urged to ban all fish sales when the mercury level was over an assumed limit.
On May 20,1971, the New York Times, in coverage of congressional hearings, reported that “various experts on environmental chemistry told Congress that the ecological harm caused by mercury and possibly arsenic pollution was so grave that it would be decades and probably centuries before such pollutants were dissipated.”
The mercury hysteria then reached a new peak and it was reported that millions of Americans had been infected and other human beings were in grave danger. The Disaster Lobby demanded immediate cessation of mercury processing even though it was an essential ingredient in medicines and scientific instruments. Only one medical case due to mercury in fish was publicized and this was later found to not be a fact.
While the panic was growing, other observant levelheaded people were looking at all the facts. In December 1970, Henry Diamond, New York State environmental commissioner had advised against fishing and swimming in several New York lakes. Later he discovered that some of the lakes with suspect mercury levels were isolated and had no nearby industry. These fish could not have been polluted by industrial mercury.
This started a search leading to the discovery that fish caught before 1930 and preserved as trophies had mercury levels higher than current samples, even though it had been reported to Congress that current mercury levels were 100 times greater than those of 25 years earlier.
The crunch came when the Smithsonian Institute said that pickled samples of tuna caught as long ago as 1878 contained as much mercury as fish caught in 1971. Humans had been eating fish with mercury for centuries without ill effects.
The case against industry, which seemed so airtight in 1970, began to crumble. The final blow came when Dr. Edwin Wilsen, curator of the Museum of Anthropology in Ann Arbor, Mich., reported that high levels of mercury were found in the remains of a fish that lived over 2,000 years earlier. “Our data,” he said, “suggest that mercury concentrations in prehistoric fish were on the same order of magnitude as that in present day fish.
If that was true, American industry could not be at fault. The villain was Mother Nature, but condemning her is not popular. University of California’s Thomas Jukes reported that the mercury was a natural process that resulted from the mercury in sea plants and seaweed being metabolized by the fish.
Finally, the New York Times reported in a small article on the back pages, “When high mercury levels were discovered last year in fresh water fish, sea lions and Alaskan fur seals, it was at first believed that the contaminants were due to industry pollution. But many scientists appear now to have swung over to the belief that the presence of the metal is a result of its concentration in the food chain.”
The FDA had bowed to the pressures of the radical lobby and ignored hard evidence and common sense. The Congress and other government agencies followed blindly.
The sad part of this horrible story is that the public was not advised when the scare ended. Some are still reluctant to eat fish from the area waterways. The same media that reported in bold headlines about unsubstantiated dangers did not report the truth with the urgency.
Recent government revelations admit that banned cyclamate sweetener, dioxin, and now even PCB’s do not appear to be as dangerous as earlier reported. Billions of tax dollars were spent regulating and investigating these items and billions of private capital was spent on abatement, all at the expense of important needs in other areas.
It is time for American people to let Congress know that they want a stop to regulation by panic and pressure groups. We want proof before a product is banned and before people are put out of work. We want to know the hidden agenda of those proposing regulations. We want congressional hearings designed to hear both sides and not just those proposing new environmental regulations.
James Bob Gresham is an architect-engineer in Paducah, KY.
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