Mercury in Seafood
Mercury and its adverse health affects are often considered a piece of history, belonging in the time of gilt decor and the “mad hatter”. However mercury is still a prevalent health concern, as mercury is an unintended byproduct of many industrial efforts as well.
One can easily visualize the similarities of coal power plants to fiery volcanoes or industrial mining to tectonics shifts. In more unfortunate examples mercury has unscrupulously been dumped into the oceans or rivers. This underhanded practice most famously occurred in the Japanese city of Minamata. Thus the title of the Minamata disease, caused by a build up of methylmercury in the central nervous system. The effects of this disease are devastating, potentially inducing tremors, blind, or even insanity. The harmful exposure to mercury however, is typically less direct that physical contact with a silvery puddle of heavy metal. The most common human exposure to Mercury is though seafood, which is also demonstrated by Minamata disaster. The magnitude at which it afflicted the population was due to the cities nearly exclusive consumption of seafood.
Mercury’s dangerous effect on the seafood industry is easily explainable by one concept: Bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation is the process of chemicals building up in an organism disproportionately to its environment. Each organism is exposed to the chemicals within the environment, but predators are also exposed to the chemical which were present within its prey. This causes persistent chemicals such as mercury have heightened concentrations proportional to the predator’s position on the food chain.
The issue presented to humanity is that we are one of the longest lived and most successful predators, thus making us particularly susceptible to bioaccumulation. With the insurgence of seafood being pushed as a healthy and ethical alternative to conventional meat products the consumer must ever vigilant.
While fish contains protein whilst having less saturated fats than conventional meat, it also consistently contains mercury but in varying concentrations. This poses the great risk to children and pregnant woman as even small portions of mercury can impede brain development. In fact the EPA estimates that around 75000 children will be born with greater risk of learning disabilities due to mercury exposure, though this figure could potentially be quite larger. Unfortunately mercury as pressing of a health concern as it is, commonly gets overlooked for buzzwords and food fads.