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September 2, 2011

Mercury rising: Seafood contamination and a consumer’s right to know


Mercury contamination in popular fish, industrial waste leaking into our oceans, years long legal battles to gain access to public information being kept hidden by the government – it sounds like the plot of a movie, but unfortunately, it’s just what we’ve been dealing with in our latest battle against seafood contamination in Spain and in Europe.

Years ago, we requested and were denied the results from a report on levels of arsenic and metals in fish and shellfish of commercial interest, by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography. After years of legal battle, we were finally able to get our hands on it, and the news wasn’t good – it turns out the contamination was high in several species sold in Spanish markets. In an almost uncomfortable twist, on April 14, a mere month after we finally got the full report, the Carlos III Health Institute released a study that showed high levels of mercury in the blood of Spanish citizens, higher than in other countries.

So, how does Mercury get into our food, and what does it do to us?

Mercury from industrial sources enters the marine food chain where it becomes concentrated mainly in predators located at the top of it, such as shark and swordfish. When consumed, it affects the neurological system and can cause damaging health effects, such as lack of coordination, tremors, irritability, memory loss, blurred vision, headaches and depression. It is therefore necessary to limit the consumption of those species which contain the highest levels of bioaccumulation.

What we’re doing about it:

We are calling on all chlorine plants using mercury cells, the main source of mercury contamination in the seas and pollution of fish species, to immediately adapt to Best Available Technologies (BATs). What’s frustrating is that these do exist, there is in fact no reason for these plants to continue using old and contaminating technologies, and yet the EU recently extended the window to convert these plants to 2020.

In addition, we are insisting that grocery stores in Spain – and around Europe, particularly in countries that consume fish with higher mercury levels – display warning signs so that all consumers are aware of the potential effects of this contamination. We have a right to know what’s in the food we buy to feed our families.