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Is Wild Alaskan Salmon Mercury-Safe?
2/25/2008
 
It's easy for people to get confused and misled when it comes to mercury and fish.

Their concerns are understandable and were reflected in a letter we received today, which we will answer here.

First things first: our fish are exceptionally pure, by any standard.

Our tuna and halibut are hand-selected for their youth and small size and are therefore unusually low in mercury compared with national brands.

And all of our other offerings are species inherently low in mercury, regardless of their size or age at time of harvest.

But we continually get questions about mercury and wild Salmon, even though the U.S. EPA and FDA—and most media reports—accurately characterize wild Salmon as very low in mercury.

For example, consider this statement from the Alaska Division of Public Health (SOA 2001):

"Fortunately, mercury levels are very low in the most frequently consumed fish from Alaska, such as Salmon, Cod, Halibut, Pollock, Sole, and Herring. Mercury levels in Salmon are among the lowest found.”

A recent review of the evidence confirmed the superior purity of wild Alaskan Salmon: "Pacific Salmon… had exceptionally low [mercury] concentrations” (Jewett SC, Duffy LK 2007).

And recent data from Alaska’s Fish Monitoring Program shows that levels of organic pollutants (e.g., PCBs and dioxin) in Alaska fish fall well below those that would raise any health concerns (SOA 2007).

Sled-dog study prompts customer query
The concern expressed in a query we received today was prompted by an article posted at Discovery.com.

Hello,
I would like your comments on… [a] Discovery Channel piece on the high amount of mercury in Alaskan salmon. I thought your Salmon was purported to be mercury free, no? This concerns me. Thank you in advance.
– Lilly F.

Actually, the article that prompted Lilly’s letter did not say that wild Alaskan salmon is high in mercury.

Instead, it concerned a study in sled dogs living in Native Alaskan settlements near Salmon rivers, whose diets are extremely high in Salmon.

The researchers' results showed higher levels of mercury in the pups’ fur, compared with sled dogs raised on regular, meat-and-grain-based dog chow.

Considered out of context, it's easy to see how this story could raise concerns.

However, the results raise no alarms—even for folks who eat lots of wild Salmon—and are unsurprising when you consider how the sled dogs were fed.

The dogs’ diets consisted almost entirely of salmon, of which these canines consume huge amounts to meet the high calorie and protein demands of working very hard in a very cold place.

Relative to body weight, sled dogs fed primarily on salmon eat far more fish than even the most avid human salmon lover could ever consume.

In short, wild salmon have some of the lowest mercury levels of any commercial species. This advantage is a function of their diets, short life spans, and pristine environment.

However, we have never said or implied that our salmon or other seafood is "mercury-free.” This is because—like beef, chicken, lamb, and pork—no fish is completely free of mercury (That's right, meats contain varying amounts of mercury, albeit less than most fish).

Alaskans enjoy wild Salmon with abandon … very safely
Native Alaskans, who eat far more Salmon and fish than the average American, have not shown signs of mercury poisoning.

Not one among the 359 Alaskan women of childbearing age (from 51 communities) showed unsafe mercury levels as a result of eating Alaska fish, according to tests conducted from 2002 through 2006 (SOA 2007).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a joint advisory in 2004 recommending that young children and women of childbearing age limit their exposure to environmental mercury by eating only 12 ounces of fish—approximately two meals—per week.

This recommended limit does not apply to adults, but it often mistaken to be a general guideline.

The EPA/FDA recommended intake limit for young children and women of childbearing age would only result in a level of mercury consumption that is still very far below the level that could threaten health.

And, citing the findings of several recent investigations into the risks and rewards of seafood, Alaskan State health officials call the EPA/FDA recommendation counterproductive (SOAEB 2007):
  • "The recent EPA/FDA advice, which recommends limiting fish consumption to 12 ounces per week, might actually be harmful to early child development.
  • "A recent study of nearly 12,000 pregnant women in the United Kingdom found that maternal seafood intake during pregnancy of less than 12 ounces per week was associated with increased risk of their children being in the lowest quartile for verbal IQ, compared with mothers who consumed more than 12 ounces per week.
  • "Other outcomes negatively affected by eating 12 ounces of seafood per week or less included pro-social behavior, and development of fine motor, communication, and social development skills.
  • "For each outcome measure, the higher the maternal seafood intake the less likely the infant was to have a suboptimum score.”
Alaska’s Public Health department also points out that mercury concentrations in native fish are quite low, and that Alaskans, on average, safely eat between 10 and 60 ounces of locally raised fish—much of it salmon—every week.

In short, you can enjoy wild salmon to your heart’s content.

Dose matters
Modern labs can detect chemicals in parts per trillion, so we now know that virtually every food sold contains some level of contaminants.

What matters is how a food ranks relative to the maximum safe intake levels of the contaminants it contains, and how much of it you eat.

As outlined in this article, wild salmon is very safe in this regard.


Sources
  • State of Alaska (SOA). Bulletin No. 6, June 15, 2001. Mercury and National Fish Advisories Statement from Alaska Division of Public Health: Recommendations for Fish Consumption in Alaska. Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/bulletins/docs/b2001_06.htm
  • Jewett SC, Duffy LK. Mercury in fishes of Alaska, with emphasis on subsistence species. Sci Total Environ. 2007 Nov 15;387(1-3):3-27. Epub 2007 Sep 7. Review.
  • State of Alaska (SOA). Bulletin No. 29, October 15, 2007. Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize the Public’s Health ? Executive Summary. Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/b2007_29.pdf
  • State of Alaska Epidemiololgy Bulletin (SOAEB), Volume No. 11 Number 4, October 15, 2007. Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize the Public’s Health Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/rr2007_04.pdf.
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