In September 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme hosted a meeting in Geneva about ways to reduce mercury emissions around the world.
A report from that meeting will be considered by environment ministers at a meeting of UNEP's governing council in February and could lead to consideration of an international treaty on mercury emissions.
In a new study, a San Francisco physician, Dr.Jane Hightower, whose yearlong study of patients in her Bay Area practice was published Friday in Environmental Health Perspectives, says she discovered high levels of toxic mercury, called methylmercury, in blood and hair samples taken from dozens of her patients - men, women and children.
Many were suffering symptoms associated with low-level mercury poisoning, including hair loss, fatigue, depression, difficulty concentrating and headaches. The implication, she says, is that anyone who consumes a lot of fish, especially large steak fish such as swordfish, shark and tuna could be at risk. "You have people who have been told to eat fish because it's healthful, but they have not been told it contains contaminants," said Dr. Hightower.
A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee recommended in July 2001 that the agency do research to assess the risks to women and young children who eat canned tuna.
The amount of methylmercury per can is generally low, about 0.17 parts per million, but it can vary widely, says Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project, an advocacy group.
"Tuna is the most consumed fish in the country," Bender says. “If you're a pregnant woman and you eat over two cans of tuna per week, you can go over safe levels of mercury".
The FDA currently recommends that women who are or could become pregnant limit all fish to 12 ounces a week.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that people were switching to fish to improve their health but "they're being exposed to dangerously high levels of methylmercury. That's especially troubling if the consumers are women who plan to have children”, said DeWaal, author of the recently published Is Our Food Safe?