The New York Times' scaremongering story about mercury-tainted sushi.

Media criticism.
Jan. 25 2008 6:14 PM

The Times' Fishy Story

Nevermind that scaremongering story about mercury-tainted sushi.

Sushi
How dangerous is your spicy tuna roll?

New York Times reporter Marian Burros wrote herself onto Page One on Jan. 23 with a scaremongering story titled "High Mercury Levels Are Found in Tuna Sushi."

Burros found that a regular, weekly diet of six pieces of the tuna sushi found in five Manhattan restaurants and stores "would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency" and quoted a professor of environmental and occupational medicine saying, "No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks." As I write, the article is the fifth most popular e-mailed Times article.

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Before you jab yourself in the eyes with your chopsticks and swear off bluefin forever, consider the scientific findings on fish consumption. An excellent overview of the topic, "Twenty-seven Years Studying the Human Neurotoxicity of Methylmercury Exposure," published in the July 2000 issue of Environmental Research, can be purchased for less than a platter of prime sushi.

The University of Rochester researchers, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, conducted clinical studies on populations in Samoa, Peru, and the Seychelles, all of which eat lots of fish. Their studies found "no evidence that consuming large amounts of fish is associated with adverse effects on adults or children."

In the Seychelles, where mothers eat an average of 12 serving of fish a week, the team enrolled 779 newborns in their study, reports this 1998 University of Rochester press release. That group constituted about half of all live births on the island republic that year. The researchers returned to assess the children with a battery of developmental and neurological tests at 6, 19, 29, and 66 months of age. The fish eaten in the Seychelles contains the same amount of mercury found in fish consumed in the United States. No ill effects on the children or mothers have been discovered in the ongoing study, leading the scientists to encourage fish consumption, especially "in societies where fish is the primary source of protein."

The Rochesterians' longitudinal findings are cited nowhere in the Times piece. Instead, in a sidebar, the reporter discusses the connection between elevated mercury levels and cardiovascular disease in adults, although the sidebar is mute on whether the research subjects—European and Israeli men—can blame their high mercury levels on fish.

The sidebar also cites the work of San Francisco physician Jane M. Hightower. Hightower has treated patients who eat lots of fish and complained of "vague, unexplained symptoms," including "memory lapses, hair loss, fatigue, sleeplessness, tremors, headaches, muscle and joint pain, trouble thinking, gastrointestinal disturbances and an inability to do complex tasks." The doctor found that 89 percent of them had blood mercury levels in excess of the level considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency and that their mercury levels dropped in all but two of her patients when she told them to reduce fish consumption.

The Hightower paper cited by the Times makes very modest claims. No other contaminant but mercury was tested for, it acknowledges, and the conclusion concedes that many "patients who present to the doctor have symptoms that may be caused by other conditions."

We know from the Minamata disaster the dangers posed by mercury in seafood, especially to fetal development. But dose determines toxicity, something a newspaper staffed with as many accomplished science reporters as the Times surely knows. Or does it? See this hand-wringing editorial from Jan. 24, riffing off of the Burros article; this "react" story from sushi consumers on the same day; and this dorky column imagining a presidential sushi debate—yuk, yuk—by Clyde Haberman today.

For a sensible and learned Times take on mercury, please point your browser to this 2003 story by James Gorman. And pass the bluefin.

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I'll have a Kirin and extra-fresh wasabi, please. What'll you have? Send orders to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, and we'll send the bill to the Times. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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