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Attorney General Lockyer Pushes Grocers to Warn Consumers about Mercury in Fish

Warnings Would Cover Tuna, Swordfish and Shark
Friday, January 17, 2003
Contact: (415) 703-5837

(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today moved to force five grocery chains to warn customers that tuna, swordfish and shark sold in their markets contain mercury, which is known by the state to cause cancer and reproductive harm.

The five stores include Safeway, Kroger's, Albertson's, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. In a complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court, the Attorney General's Office alleges the grocers have violated Proposition 65, the ballot initiative enacted by voters in 1986. The law requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

The action is not intended to discourage people from eating fish, but to ensure people make informed decisions about what they are eating.

"Generally, fish are an important source of protein and play a prominent role in many Californians' diet," said Lockyer. "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. Those substances are ingested by people who eat the fish.

The complaint alleges the five grocery chains have failed to post a Proposition 65 warning for customers who want to buy the fish. The suit asks the court to prohibit the stores from selling the fish until they post the required warning. The complaint does not cover canned tuna.

The state also is seeking civil penalties for violations of Proposition 65 and the state's Unfair Competition Act. Under both laws, each defendant is liable for civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day for each violation. The complaint alleges the defendants have failed to comply with Proposition 65 since as far back as 1988.

Here are some important facts about mercury and fish:

Fish absorb methymercury from water as they eat aquatic organisms. Mercury is released into the air, then falls into surface water, and ultimately accumulates in streams and oceans. Bacteria in water transforms mercury into methymercury.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2001 advised pregnant women, and women of child-bearing age who may become pregnant, not to eat swordfish and shark because they contain high levels of methylmercury.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has advised pregnant women, and women of child-bearing age who may become pregnant, to eat no more than an average of 12 ounces of fish per week.

The primary reproductive danger posed by methylmercury in fish is to the nervous system of the unborn child, according to the FDA.

In a one-year survey of internal medicine patients in San Francisco, a significant number of patients had diets high in fish consumption. A large percentage of those patients, including women and children, "had blood mercury levels exceeding the maximum level recommended by the U.S. EPA and National Academy of Sciences." (2002 study by Jane M. Hightower, M.D.)

Fish such as lake trout, salmon and bass are less likely to contain harmful levels of mercury if they are small and young.

Proper cleaning and cooking of fish reduces the health risk from chemical pollutants.

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