FDA’s midnight mischief heightens mercury risk to pregnant women, infants

Documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG) in December show that officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are pressing to reverse the agency’s current recommendations that pregnant women and children limit their seafood consumption due to risks of exposure to mercury—an extremely harmful neurotoxin found at high levels in a number of popular seafood species such as tuna, swordfish and mackerel.

An internal FDA report, stamped “CLOSE HOLD,” claims that pregnant women and children—the two most vulnerable populations—should be encouraged to eat any quantity of any type of seafood, contradicting the current position of the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that these groups should sharply limit their intake of seafood, especially tuna and other types with high mercury levels.

The report, entitled “An Evaluation of Risk to U.S. Consumers from Methylmercury in Commercial Fishing Products, Including a Quantitative Assessment of Risk and Beneficial Health Effects from Fish,” argues that “the net effect on fetal neurodevelopment from eating commercial fish containing methyl mercury...is not necessarily adverse and could in fact be beneficial....”

In a scathing internal memo, dated December 5, 2008, EPA officials blasted the FDA proposal as “over -simplified,” with “serious scientific flaws.” They concluded that “this is not a document that EPA should endorse as it does not reach the level of scientific rigor routinely demonstrated by the Agency.”

The FDA document contends that the health benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids in fish outweigh the risk from exposure to any level of mercury—a toxic metal linked to a number of serious brain and nervous system disorders.

“This is an astonishingly cynical and irresponsible move that jeopardizes the health of all American children,” said EWG Executive Director and co-founder Richard Wiles. “There are many sources of omega-3s that contain no mercury at all, but the FDA has failed to promote them. You only get one chance with a child’s developing brain. The FDA is willing to gamble it away for a few more dollars for the tuna industry.”

EWG analyses have repeatedly shown that unrestricted consumption of popular fish that are heavily contaminated with mercury, like canned tuna, will expose a fetus to levels of mercury many times above what the EPA considers safe. Research by Kathryn Mahaffey, formerly the EPA’s top scientist on mercury toxicity, shows that blood mercury concentrations were seven times higher in women who ate fish more than twice a week, (as proposed by the FDA report) compared to women who had not eaten fish during the previous month.

The medical literature is rife with cases of people who have suffered chronic and debilitating mercury poisoning from eating three to four meals per week of large ocean-dwelling fish—exactly what FDA is recommending.

“The FDA was once a fearsome protector of the public health,” said Wiles. “Now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters,” said Wiles. “This is the last nail in the coffin for the FDA’s credibility.”

“One in 6 pregnancies in the United States are to women with too much mercury in their bodies,” said EWG Senior Scientist Sonya Lunder. “These women can get the essential omega-3 fats from fortified eggs, margarine, walnuts, with none of the mercury. Why take any risks?”

“We urge you to block this eleventh-hour push by the FDA to pad the wallets of the seafood industry at the expense of our nation’s children,” Wiles wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. -Environmental Working Group

FDA reluctantly admits mercury fillings have neurotoxic effects on children

For the first time, the FDA has issued a warning that the mercury contained in silver dental fillings may pose neurological risks to children and pregnant women.

“Dental amalgams contain mercury, which may have neurotoxic effects on the nervous systems of developing children and fetuses,” reads a statement that has been added to the agency’s Web site. “Pregnant women and persons who may have a health condition that makes them more sensitive to mercury exposure, including individuals with existing high levels of mercury bioburden, should not avoid seeking dental care, but should discuss options with their health practitioner.”

The warning was one of the conditions that the FDA agreed to in settling a lawsuit filed by several consumer health groups.

“Gone, gone, gone are all of FDA’s claims that no science exists that amalgam is unsafe,” said Charles Brown, a lawyer for Consumers for Dental Choice, one of the plaintiffs.

“It’s a watershed moment,” said Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project, another plaintiff.

Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin that can cause cognitive and developmental problems, especially in fetuses and children. It can also cause brain and kidney damage in adults. So-called dental amalgams, or fillings made with a mix of mercury and other metals, have been used since the 1800s. Although it is known that small amounts of mercury are vaporized (and can be inhaled) when the fillings are used to chew food, and though Canada, France and Sweden have all placed restrictions on the use of mercury fillings, the FDA has always insisted that amalgams are safe. Dental amalgams are considered medical devices, regulated by the FDA. Even the FDA’s new warning stops short of admitting that dental amalgams are dangerous for the general population. Instead, it focuses on the same population that has already been warned to limit mercury exposure by consuming less seafood: children and pregnant women. The FDA says it does not recommend that those who already have mercury fillings get them removed.

Millions of people have received amalgam fillings, although their popularity has dropped off in recent years. Currently, only 30 percent of dental fillings contain mercury—the rest are tooth-colored resin composites made from glass, cement and porcelain. These alternative fillings are more expensive and less durable than amalgam, however.

In 2002, the FDA began a regulatory review of amalgam that was expected to be complete within a few years. In 2006, with the review still incomplete, an independent FDA advisory panel of doctors and dentists rejected the agency’s position that there is no reason for concern about the use of amalgam. While the panel agreed that the majority of people receiving such fillings would not be harmed, panel members expressed concern for the health of certain sensitive populations, including children under the age of six. The panel recommended that the FDA conduct further studies on the risks to children from dental amalgam, and that it consider a policy of informed consent for children and pregnant: that is, warning those groups of the risks associated with the fillings before installing them.

Part of the lawsuit centered on the FDA’s failure to respond to these recommendations in a timely fashion. As part of the lawsuit settlement, the FDA must reach a final decision on the regulation of amalgam by July 28, 2009.

“This court settlement signals the death knell for mercury fillings,” Brown predicted.

But J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Ipsita Smolinski disagreed, saying that the FDA is unlikely to ban amalgam entirely.

“We do believe that the agency will ask for the label to indicate that mercury is an ingredient in the filling, and that special populations should be exempt from such fillings, such as: nursing women, pregnant women, young children, and immunocompromised individuals,” Smolinski said. -Organic Consumers Assoc.

More fruits and vegetables and less fat help reduce hormone-related cancer

High-fiber, low-fat diets reduce recurrence of breast cancer by 31 percent in women with higher estrogen levels, according to a new report from the Women’s Healthy Living and Eating Lifestyle Study. Almost 3,000 breast cancer survivors were randomly assigned to either a special high-fiber diet including five vegetable servings, 16 ounces of vegetable juice, and three fruit servings daily, or a comparison diet based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five-a-day guidelines-a total of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. -Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

U.S. de-regulates factory farm pollution

On the heels of a decision to allow factory farms to apply for permits to discharge waste into waterways, the Bush administration in December exempted the industry from reporting hazardous air emissions to the federal government, prompting a consumer group to accuse the outgoing president of undoing years of environmental protections and “putting millions of Americans at risk.”

The manure produced at factory farms, where tens of thousands of animals are raised for food in congested facilities, accounts for six percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, while 19 percent of all U.S. emissions come from transportation, notes Food & Water Watch. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision has alarmed climate and consumer rights activists alike because it lets industrial-size farms refrain from disclosing the quantity of hazardous substances—notably the greenhouse gas methane—emitted by animal waste.

“Today’s action by the Bush EPA is nothing more than a giveaway to big agribusiness at the expense of the public health and of local communities located near large factory farms,” U.S. Representative John Dingell said, according to Pork Magazine, a business publication for professional pork producers.

According to his Web site, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency “will strictly regulate pollution from large CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), with fines for those that violate tough standards.” -Organic Consumers Association

Gardening provides recommended physical activity for older adults

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week in order to maintain and improve optimal health. This recommendation is especially important for older Americans, who can be less likely to fulfill this requirement, yet are more at risk for chronic diseases associated with aging.

Gardening is a very popular leisure activity for adults aged 65 or older in the United States. A recent study conducted by Sin-Ae Park, Candice Shoemaker, and Mark Haub of Kansas State University, set out to determine if gardening enables older adults to meet the physical activity recommendation set forth by the CDC and the ACSM. A previous study concluded that gardening results in improvement in mental health and depression for participants. Researchers were now interested in finding out if gardening can offer subjects the same positive health benefits that regular physical activity (such as jogging, swimming, or weight training) provides.

Gardening was expected to influence whole-body bone mineral density because it included weight-bearing motions such as pushing a mower, digging holes, pulling weeds, carrying soil, and other tasks required use muscle groups in the entire body. The study was conducted on 14 gardeners aged 63-86 years. Measurements taken by researchers included heart rate, oxygen intake and energy expenditure, and the participants also kept weekly logs of their gardening activity. The study also sought to determine the average amount of time that gardeners spent at their task per week. Subjects reported, on average, gardening about 33 hours per week during May, but averaged only 15 hours per week in June and July.

Older adults are at a higher risk for a sedentary lifestyle, which is one of the factors of increased risk of decline of muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, balance, and cardiopulmonary health. One of the factors cited that makes these adults less likely to participate in physical activity is boredom during exercising. The variety of tasks associated with gardening is one reason older adults are more likely to stick with their regimen; gardening tasks change throughout the season and different activities are involved in daily chores.

The researchers concluded that gardening is a great way for older adults to meet the physical activity recommendations set forth by the CDC and the ACSM. One limit the study found was the seasonal nature of gardening. In climates where there are defined seasons, time spent gardening or maintaining a yard in winter is less than in the warm growing season. Continued research is needed to investigate the healthful benefits of gardening in all the regions of the United States. -Food Consumer.org

China bans 17 harmful substances in food

China has published a list of 17 acids, chemicals and other substances that have been banned as food additives, amid a four-month safety campaign following a scandal over tainted milk. Illegal items posted on the Chinese health ministry’s list include boric acid, a chemical used as an insecticide or flame retardant that is known to be added to noodles or the skin of dumplings to increase their elasticity. Formaldehyde, applied to dried seafood to improve its appearance, but also commonly used as a disinfectant, was another dangerous substance on the banned list, published on the ministry’s website in mid-December. Some of the substances, such as the carcinogenic dye Sudan Red 1, had already been banned by the government, but this was the first official compilation of illegal food additives in China.

The crackdown comes after a scandal involved dairy products contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. The government said 294,000 children fell ill with kidney problems this year from drinking tainted milk and six may have died. The chemical was routinely added to watered-down milk to give it the appearance of high protein levels, with at least 20 Chinese dairy companies found to have sold contaminated products. The milk scandal, which erupted in September, caused global concern with countries around the world banning or recalling China-made dairy products. This prompted authorities to launch a four-month food safety drive at the beginning of December to try to restore confidence in the “Made-in-China” brand.

The government said when it announced the campaign that it would start out softly, with companies urged to correct their own shortcomings. But officials would soon begin raiding food producers deemed high-risk and carry out random checks, it warned.

The list of banned food additives also included sodium thiocyanate, used in the manufacture of textiles, and added to milk and dairy products to keep them fresh.

Anthony Hazzard, a regional adviser for food safety in the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific office, said the list could prove useful in reducing the illegal use of such chemicals, by raising awareness. But he told AFP it was more efficient to have a list of additives that could be used in food rather than an un-ending list of ones that could not.

As part of the crackdown, the health ministry also published the names of additives that could easily be abused when added to food products. It mentioned leavening agents as one such substance, used to make cakes and dough sticks, which could leave excessive aluminum residues if added in excessive quantities.

But the ministry warned the lists were not exhaustive. “These lists... cannot cover all problems linked to illegally adding substances in food and abusing additives in the industry,” it said in its online statement. -AFP.com