Thursday, January 24, 2008

Telesis File : Deadly Poisons From the Deep

Fish flesh today is badly contaminated with toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer and brain degeneration and is also the most likely of all foods to make you sick from bacterial contamination. Think Fish Is a Health Food? Think Again. Fish live in water that is so polluted, you would never dream of drinking it. But you’re ingesting this toxic brew—bacteria, contaminants, heavy metals and all—every time you eat fish. Fish’s bodies absorb toxic chemicals in the water around them, and the chemicals become more concentrated as they move up the food chain. Big fish eat little fish, with the bigger fish (such as tuna and salmon) absorbing chemicals from all the other fish they eat. Fish flesh stores contaminants, such as PCBs, which cause liver damage, nervous system disorders, and fetal damage; dioxins, also linked to cancer; radioactive substances like strontium 90; and other dangerous contaminants like cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic, which can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and impaired mental development to cancer. These toxins are stored in the body fat of humans who eat fish and remain in their bodies for decades.5 Seafood is the number one cause of food poisoning in the United States. Seafood poisoning can result in extreme discomfort, kidney damage, nervous system damage, and even death. Seafood is also the number one cause of food poisoning in the United States. Many of our waterways are polluted with human and animal feces, and this waste carries dangerous bacteria like E. coli. So when we eat fish, we are exposing ourselves to the unnecessary risk of contracting a nasty bacterial illness that can lead to mild to extreme discomfort, nervous system damage, and even death. According to a report by the General Accounting Office, the seafood industry is dangerously underregulated. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even bother to test most fish flesh for many well-known chemical and bacterial health hazards. It’s the Mercury Consumption of fish and other sea animals is the sole source of human exposure to methyl mercury. —New England Journal of Medicine (2003) Around the world, fish are accumulating toxic mercury in their flesh as a result of industrial pollution. Fish absorb and ingest the mercury and store it in their tissues. If you eat fish, your body will absorb mercury from the fish’s flesh, and the accumulation of this toxin can lead to serious health problems. It is worth noting that fish consumption is the sole source of human exposure to this known poison. Eating even small amounts of fish flesh can have a big impact on the levels of mercury in our blood. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that women who ate fish just twice a week had blood mercury concentrations seven times higher than women who hadn’t eaten fish in the previous month. Studies have also shown that a 140-pound woman will be 30 percent over the EPA cutoff for safe mercury levels if she eats just one 6-ounce can of white tuna each week. Mercury is known to cause severe health problems for humans, including brain damage, memory loss, personality change, tremors, spontaneous abortion, and damage to a developing fetus. Mercury Is a Poison "We found that if people eat fish, the mercury goes up. They stop eating fish, the mercury goes down. It's that simple ... It's a documented poison. Wherever it's seen, it's been a problem." —Dr. Jane M. Hightower Mercury is known to cause severe health problems for humans, including brain damage, memory loss, personality change, tremors, spontaneous abortion, and damage to a developing fetus.15 Mercury poisoning from eating fish can also cause fatigue and memory loss, which some doctors call “fish fog.” A study conducted by San Francisco physician Jane Hightower found that dozens of her patients had high levels of mercury in their bodies and many showed symptoms of mercury poisoning, including hair loss, fatigue, depression, difficulty concentrating and headaches. She found that her patients’ symptoms improved when they stopped eating fish.18 “[Mercury is] a documented poison. Wherever it’s seen, it’s been a problem,” says Hightower. Researchers have also shown that the mercury in marine animals can cause heart problems in humans who eat their flesh. A recent report released by the Research Institute of Public Health in Finland showed that men who have elevated levels of mercury in their blood from eating fish are roughly 1.5 times more likely to suffer from heart problems, including heart disease and heart attacks. Toxic Flesh Fish can concentrate extremely high levels of chemical residues in their flesh and fat, as much as 9 million times that of the water in which they live. Mercury isn’t the only dangerous toxin in fish flesh—people who eat fish also ingest PCBs. As big fish eat little fish, PCBs become more concentrated in their flesh. Fish-eaters who ingest these dangerous chemicals suffer from increased cancer risk and may experience decreased mental functioning and damaged sexual health. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are synthetic chemicals that were once used in hydraulic fluids and oils and electrical capacitors and transformers. These toxins were banned in the United States in 1979 for use in all but completely enclosed areas, but heavy past usage has resulted in environmental contamination worldwide, especially in fish. PCBs are dangerous because they act like hormones, wreaking havoc on the nervous system and contributing to a variety of illnesses, including cancer, infertility, and other sexual problems. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that fish-eaters with high levels of PCBs in their blood have difficulty recalling information that they learned just 30 minutes earlier. PCBs are absorbed into the bodies of fish. Bigger fish who eat smaller fish accumulate greater and greater concentrations of PCBs in their flesh and can reach levels that may be many thousands of times higher than the PCB levels in the water itself, which most people would never think of drinking. One bottle-nose dolphin had PCB levels of 2,000 parts per million (ppm)—40 times the amount required for hazardous waste disposal. Inuit natives, whose diets consist largely of fish, have been found with PCB levels of 15.7 ppm in their fat, far higher concentrations than the maximum amount considered to be safe in fish by the EPA (.094 ppm). Nearly all Inuit have PCB levels far above guideline levels that health officials consider safe, and some Inuit have ingested so much contamination from fish that their breast milk and body tissues would be classified as hazardous waste. In the United States in 2002, 38 states issued fish consumption advisories because of high PCB levels. PCBs Will Make You Stupid Fish-eaters in one study had high levels of lead, mercury, and DDE in their blood. Even low concentrations of lead can cause mental retardation and physical disability in children. Higher levels can lead to coma, convulsions, and death. Dr. Susan L. Schantz of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has been studying fish-eaters since 1992 and has found that people who ate 24 pounds or more of fish per year have problems with learning and memory. (On average, people around the world consume 40 pounds of fish per year.) She found that fish-eaters often have high levels of PCBs in their blood and thus have difficulty recalling information they learned just 30 minutes earlier. Says Schantz: “It had been assumed that mature adults are less susceptible [to PCBs] than are developing fetuses. This may not be the case.” Some fish-eaters in her study had high levels of lead, mercury, and DDE (formed when DDT breaks down) in their blood. Even low concentrations of lead can cause mental retardation and physical disability in children. Higher levels can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, and even death. Fish Farming: Making Fish Flesh Even More Toxic Because salmon are becoming so rare in the wild, 80 percent of the salmon consumed in America today come from massive fish farms. These farmed fish are actually fed the flesh of wild-caught fish. It takes 5 pounds of commercially caught fish (all species that would not be saleable to humans) to create 1 pound of farmed fish. All that commercially netted fish comes with heavy doses of toxins, as discussed above, which then concentrate in the flesh of farmed fish, making it the most toxic thing that humans routinely put into their bodies. Farmed salmon also have twice the fat of wild salmon, and this fat collects even more toxins. Tests on farmed salmon purchased at U.S. grocery stores show that these fish are contaminated with even more PCBs than their wild counterparts. Plus, farmed salmon are dyed pink to impersonate their wild cousins. In 2003, a class-action lawsuit was filed in the state of Washington because the labeling on farmed salmon neglected to mention the artificial coloring. Scientists are concerned because the dyes used in salmon can cause retinal damage. Finally, in August 2004, scientists from Indiana University warned that industrial-strength fire retardant is showing up in salmon flesh worldwide. The health consequences of exposure to all the toxins found in salmon can be grave—the Environmental Working Group estimates that 800,000 people in the U.S. face an excess lifetime cancer risk from eating farmed salmon. Food Poisoning: Catch of the Day According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 75 million cases of foodborne illness every year, including hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. And seafood is the number one cause of food poisoning in the United States.58 Symptoms of seafood poisoning include mild to extreme discomfort, nervous system damage, and even death. “[T]he seafood industry has a very poor record of compliance and there is no government testing to monitor pathogens often associated with seafood poisoning. FDA’s seafood-safety system is an industry honor system unworthy of public support.” —Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest Seafood poisoning is caused by eating foods contaminated with viruses or bacteria including salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. When Consumer Reports looked at bacteria levels in fresh fish bought at supermarkets around the country, they found that between 3 and 8 percent of the samples tested had “unacceptable” levels of E. coli, a bacterium that comes from human or animal feces, that pollutes some waterways. “Seafood is a major cause of food poisoning, sickening more than 100,000 and causing dozens of preventable deaths each year.” —Caroline Smith DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest food safety director Many people may have had food poisoning without even knowing it, mistakenly attributing it to a case of “stomach flu.” Like the flu, people infected with bacteria from tainted marine animals often suffer from vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. If left untreated, this food poisoning can lead to death.61 Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with impaired immune systems are particularly vulnerable. Since fish flesh is a major cause of food poisoning, those who consume fish flesh risk unnecessary illness with every bite they take. The academic journal Environmental Microbiology published an alarming report in July 2006 about the human-health threat caused by the massive amounts of antibiotics that are fed to fish on fish farms. These drugs are used to keep the animals alive in filthy, crowded conditions that would otherwise kill them. But scientists are very concerned that the overuse of these drugs will cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria to multiply in the fish and that people who eat the infected fish flesh will contract dangerous illnesses that cannot be cured by drugs. “If we don't curb the heavy use of prophylactic antibiotics in aquaculture, then we will ultimately see more and more antibiotic-resistant pathogens emerging, causing increased disease to fish, animals, and humans alike,” said Dr. Felipe Cabello, the author of the study. The FDA: What the Government Doesn’t Tell You Can Hurt You The FDA doesn’t prevent even the most heavily contaminated fish from being sold, nor does it require warning labels on the fish that even the administration itself admits that pregnant women shouldn’t eat, making it difficult for consumers to know about the dangers. University of Arizona toxicologist Vas Aposhian says the government should put stricter limits on all canned tuna, explaining, “The new recommendations are dangerous to 99 percent of pregnant women and their unborn children.”69 According to a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the seafood industry is woefully underregulated. Seafood processors are only inspected by the FDA once every two years, and many aren’t inspected at all, since they aren’t required to register with the FDA. Only 1 to 3 percent of fish imported from other countries is inspected at the border. Many segments of the industry are completely exempt from regulation, including warehouses and most shipboard processors. When inspections do occur, they are inadequate, since there is an array of well-known hazards, including (remarkably) mercury contamination, that the FDA does not test fish for. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal, “[The] FDA’s seafood program is riddled with deficiencies, woefully underfunded, and provides no assurance of safety for consumers.” Whose Side Are They on? Even though the dangers of consuming fish are well known, government agencies continue to place the interests of the fish producers above the health of the public. The Environmental Working Group charges that the FDA changed its mind about advisories limiting tuna consumption after being pressured by the seafood industry. One leading FDA advisory panel expert resigned in protest after learning that the FDA was going to “disregard” science and not warn consumers about the health risks of eating tuna. A University of Arizona toxicologist, Vas Aposhian, said that the advisory should have put stricter limits on all canned tuna. “The new recommendations are dangerous to 99 percent of pregnant women and their unborn children,” he said. “It seems that one should be more concerned about the health of the future children of this country than the albacore tuna industry.

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