Kwon And Hightower Team Up For More Mercury Misinformation

KPIX in San Francisco has produced another mercury in fish scare story. Here’s our YouTube rebuttal video and below you’ll find our letter to KPIX management about our concerns with the report:

March 6, 2009

Dan Rosenheim

News Director


855 Battery St

San Francisco, CA 94111

VIA Email

Dear Mr. Rosenheim,

I am writing to express concern about last night’s report on the health effects of canned tuna. While your reporter Sue Kwon did touch on the clear and demonstrable health benefits of eating canned tuna, there are important problems with certain scientific claims, characterizations of the seafood industry and sourcing in her report. You can find a complete catalogue of these issues in this YouTube video.

Kwon relies on Dr. Jane Hightower as the only medical and scientific voice in her story. Hightower is not merely “a physician,” but an anti-seafood activist who press reports say has “made something of a cottage industry” out of blaming peoples’ health problems on eating fish. She is currently promoting her book about mercury conspiracy theories. She is not an independent clinician but an individual with a vested and financial interest in convincing people that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between the consumption of commercial seafood and health concerns. There are myriad independent doctors and researchers at places like Harvard, Princeton and Tufts Universities who disagree with Hightower and her anecdotal musings.

Throughout Kwon’s story, Hightower is lauded as an expert in the field but it would appear that the state of California disagrees. In the court case Kwon is reporting on, argued in Hightower’s own home city of San Francisco, the Attorney General did not call her as a witness or use any of her “research” in trying the case. Hightower highlights a possible reason for this in her own book, where she acknowledges her colleagues’ skepticism about her work with one suggesting, “there isn’t much here, and there is not enough cause-and-effect data that is significant” (p 39). Kwon’s continued use of Hightower as an independent expert is troubling and can not be dismissed based simply on Kwon’s mention that Hightower is a “fishing industry critic.”

Kwon produces a clear distortion of the facts when she and Hightower join together in pointing out that a National Fisheries Institute (NFI) website notes that “canned tuna is healthy’ for pregnant women and they can safely eat 6-ounces or a little over a can per week.” The site does in fact state this, but that is not unique advice from NFI-this is merely communication of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) advice. To suggest that NFI is out of step with the most up to date science in passing the government’s own recommendation along is a misrepresentation of the facts.

Kwon says her experiment, “illustrates that even at levels below the federal limit, mercury accumulates in the body.” With regard to the current state of science on this matter, this finding is an absolutely moot point. No one in the medical or scientific community is challenging the fact that if you eat food containing trace amounts of mercury your blood levels will go up. There is simply no argument there. The question is whether there are any adverse effects. And what published science shows is that higher blood mercury among moms may actually be a marker of optimal brain development in babies, because it indicates regular seafood consumption. Kwon notes that, “the canned tuna industry said there are no scientific studies proving a link between mercury levels in fish and specific health effects.” But she fails to mention that Hightower’s own published study does not conclude that eating fish containing mercury causes the symptoms she alleges. Again, this is something Hightower herself discuss in her book, recalling a conversation in which she remembers a colleague saying “just stick to the numbers” because “we know people have symptoms, but this [cause and effect] was harder to prove” (p 84.) For your review, she is highlighting the fact that her own survey does not succeed in linking elevated mercury levels to the symptoms she claims they cause. Her survey merely concludes that eating fish that contain trace amounts of mercury can elevate a patient’s mercury levels.

Hightower is allowed to state in the package, unchallenged by Kwon, that, “in a woman’s body she reaches a 14 or 15 she stands a chance of knocking IQ points off her child’s brain.” The latest FDA report on this very issue, announced in the Federal Register on January 21st, concludes babies born to mothers who eat seafood during pregnancy have an “average improvement” in IQ over mothers who eat no fish. Furthermore, The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed 58 micrograms per liter as the level of mercury that approaches risk, not 14 or 15 (*gg.)

Just as I would likely be identified as an industry spokesman and our lawyer was identified as an industry lawyer, Hightower should be identified as what she is and her claims should be treated with skepticism. Her concern about blood mercury levels of 17.2 micrograms per liter stands in stark contrast with the recognized EPA Reference Dose (RfD) of 5.8 micrograms per liter, with the EPA’sten fold safety factor included that number becomes58 (*gg.) Suggesting that a can of tuna a day results in dangerous levels of blood mercury has the potential to scare Americans away from a nutritious food that all major health authorities encourage.

Throughout this letter I have provided you with links to independent science-based sourcing that stands in contrast to Hightower’s claims, including, most importantly, the afore-mentioned EPA RfD. We respectfully request that you produce an addendum piece both online and on air that explains that Hightower’s assertions do not stand unopposed by independent scientists. And that furthermore, she has a clear and vested interest in repeating her unproven claims that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of commercial seafood and health concerns.

What’s more, we insist that you correct the misimpression that the consumption advice found on our websites is anything more than the federal guidance.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc: Ronald Longinotti

President and General Manager

*gg:An earlier reference to 580 micrograms per liter was in error, it should have read 58