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Women and Toxics: Fishy Advice on Eating Fish
Erica Barnett, 12 Oct 07
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Many of us are justifiably freaked out about toxic substances in our food, water, and the products we buy. Whole industries profit from making us feel safer -- a simple web search for "safe home products" yields 11 million hits, with names like "Safer Life Starts Here," "Nirvana Safe Haven," and "Home Safe Home." Walking the tightrope between prudence and excessive caution can be a headache-inducing challenge: while some products are obviously bad (pesticides, conventional dry-cleaning: Boo!), others are more ambiguous (Nalgene #7 bottles: Bad! Nalgene #2, 4, and 5: OK!).

Navigating this minefield of potentially toxic products is particularly difficult for women, whose higher levels of body fat, among other factors, make them more likely than men to absorb and retain toxic chemicals in their bodies. Unknowingly, many use beauty products that include chemicals suspected of causing cancer, hormonal changes, and endocrine disruption. And simply changing what one uses at home isn't enough, since many jobs typically held by women, such as manicurist, beautician, or housecleaner, can lead to contact with toxics. Compounding the problem is that until recently, few studies were done about women's susceptibility to toxics--like so much health care related research, such studies used male subjects and men's bodies as the norm. So we’ve got a long way to go.

The issue of women and toxics becomes even more challenging when pregnancy and breastfeeding enter the picture. Toxics accumulated in body tissues before a baby is born can lead to birth defects and delay a child's physical and mental development; toxics that build up in breast milk, meanwhile, can disrupt development and cause hormonal and other problems in growing children.

One of the most confusing and contentious debates involves eating fish: depending on whom you ask, it's either a mercury-laden time bomb that will damage your child’s brain, or a healthy source of fatty acids essential to your child’s development. A widely publicized study that came out last week appeared to settle the matter in favor of the latter view. But this study by scientists hired by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition was produced with funding from the National Fisheries Institute, the advocacy arm of the seafood industry. Its findings in favor of women eating fish often directly contradicted guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration , which recommend that pregnant women eat no more than 12 ounces of low-mercury fish species per week.

As this information has emerged, some members of the coalition are starting to back away from the study; some are even disputing its conclusions.

The bottom line: If you’re pregnant, and you’re going to eat fish, choose varieties that are low in mercury and other toxics; Oceans Alive has a good primer to guide your choices. And, limit your consumption to less than 12 ounces a week. The Turtle Island Restoration Campaign offers a neat online calculator to help anyone gauge her or his mercury exposure.

If you’re not a fish-eater, there's one worry at least off your plate: reducing or eliminating meats from your diet is a pretty good way to cut back on exposure to toxics that bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the food chain. And there are plenty of non-fish (and even vegetarian) sources of omega-3 acids, including flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts, and commercially produced fish-oil and flaxseed capsules.

As for finding safer cosmetics, a good place to start learning more is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Shopping around a problem is only a stopgap, though. In the case of fish, strong pollution controls on coal-burning power plants are ultimately the solution to mercury contamination. This fact sheet from the Southern Environmental Law Center focuses on mercury in fish in Georgia, but includes good information on the situation with US federal regulation of mercury emissions.

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nice short write-up

but if you are going to place an emphasis on women's health, please realize an overwhelming majority of commercially produced fish oils are not recommended for pregnant women, even their labels say so

Posted by: rorie shade on 12 Oct 07

It is a nice write-up, but I disagree with one point.

Vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids are not a substitute for fish or fish oil. Not all omega-3s are the same. The important health benefits for babies and adults are from long-chain omega-3s, usually known by their chemical acronyms: DHA and EPA. The short-chain analogs, found in nuts and flaxseed, are converted to DHA in the body, but slowly, so you don't get most of the benefit. In other words, you need to eat fish or at least take fish oil supplements.

In connection with the above comment, I checked the labels of about a dozen fish oil capsules on several on-line pharmacy sites. None of the said they were not recommended for pregnant or nursing women. Most said to consult a doctor before using, which seems to be a generic warning on supplements.

Posted by: Arnold M Kuzmack on 13 Oct 07

The seafood industry did not fund the research -- after the research was done, the National Healthy Mothers group approached the fishery people to get money to publicize the results of the medical studies, which show the benefits of eating fish while pregnant. If fish was bad for pregnant moms & babies, the Japanese wouldn't be some of the healthiest, longest lived people on the planet. Please get your facts straight before putting out your information.

Posted by: Nancy on 13 Oct 07

Thank you for highlighting this issue. I think the poisoning of the Earth's water and marine life are a problem of the same order of magnitude as global warming, and it is a travesty that the toxification of our waters continues today with so little outcry. Where's the outrage? More importantly... where's the self-interest?

Posted by: Zephyr on 14 Oct 07

Thank you for setting the facts straight. Also, on that report none of the so called "experts" were toxicologists that knew anything about mercury. Here, they are giving out advice on what's safe to eat when they do not know the health effects of mercury.

People should be aware of both the risks and benefits of seafood. The decision of what fish to eat can be a challenge and often contradictory. At the very least, people should know that FDA and EPA have issued advisories about mercury contamination in commonly-sold fish. The problem is, this information is hard to find and is not usually available where it is most necessary: your supermarket.

Oceana, a conservation group, is trying to get major grocery companies to post this government advice at their seafood counters. Thanks, in part to their work, Whole Foods, Safeway stores, and Wild Oats voluntarily agreed to post the FDA’s recommendations and they have had positive responses from customers and no loss in seafood sales. But other companies like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Giant have refused to do so. Oceana has a list of which companies care about their customers’ health enough to post this advice, as well as a list of companies that don’t. You can get the Green List and Red List at their website.

Posted by: Melissa on 15 Oct 07



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