Lawsuit Warns of Methylmercury in Fish

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - California's attorney general has filed a lawsuit against five grocery store chains, aiming to require the stores to post warnings about the dangers of methylmercury in fish.

In a complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court, the attorney general's office alleges the grocers have violated Proposition 65, a ballot initiative enacted by California voters in 1986. The law requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

"Generally, fish are an important source of protein," said Attorney General Bill Lockyer in filing the suit last earlier this month. "But consumers deserve to know when they are being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm. Public health agencies have advised pregnant women not to eat swordfish and shark because those fish contain relatively high levels of mercury."

Methylmercury compounds have been listed under Proposition 65 as a chemical known to cause cancer since 1996, and methylmercury has been listed as a known reproductive toxin since 1987.

Mercury and mercury compounds have been listed as known reproductive toxins since 1990. Swordfish, ahi tuna, albacore tuna and shark contain mercury, methymercury and their compounds, all of which are ingested by people who eat the fish.

The suit asks the court to prohibit the stores from selling the fish until they post the required warning. The lawsuit involves Albertsons, Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.

Environmental groups warn that the problem is not limited to those grocers, or to California. The state lawsuit was spurred by undercover testing conducted by the Turtle Island Restoration Network and As You Sow Foundation, which found high levels of methylmercury in samples of fish from the five grocers.

"The public health threats of mercury contaminated seafood, particularly swordfish, are too great to ignore," said Doug Israel, project director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. "All retailers, as well as the public health agencies of every state, have an obligation to protect the public from harmful mercury ingestion."

Methylmercury ingestion is the most common form of mercury poisoning in the U.S. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other public health bodies, high levels of methylmercury in the bloodstream can cause central nervous system effects such as impairment of vision, motor coordination problems, loss of feeling, and at high doses, seizures, severe neurological impairment, and even death.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age not to consume swordfish, tilefish, shark or mackerel due to their high levels of methylmercury contamination. Recent research reveals that high levels of mercury in the bloodstream can cause sterility in men and women, and an increased risk of heart failure.

The conservation groups say that state public health agencies and the federal government have been slow to act to protect the public health from mercury contamination of seafood.

"Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Bush Administration in general, has shown itself to be beholden to special interests, and they have dragged their feet on this issue for too long," added Israel.