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High Mercury Levels Found In Canned Tuna

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Six percent of canned albacore tuna was found in tests by an environmental group to have mercury levels at or above the levels at which the Food and Drug Administration may prohibit the fish from being sold.

At the average concentrations the Mercury Policy Project found, a woman of childbearing age who eats one 6-ounce can of albacore tuna a week could be exposed to a dose of mercury twice the Environmental Protection Agency's ''virtual safe dose.''

A 22-pound toddler who eats only 2 ounces a week, or a third of a can, could be getting four times the amount EPA considers safe, says Michael Bender, author of the report by the Mercury Policy Project.

Mercury is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and young children.

The tests also found that canned albacore tuna had, on average, four times more mercury than ''light'' tuna.

The Mercury Policy Project tested 48 cans of Starkist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna. Of those, three contained mercury at or above the FDA limit of one part per million. An additional 12 cans of light tuna were tested.

Canned tuna is consumed by 90% of U.S. households and accounts for 25% to 35% of all fish consumption, the report says. In addition, canned tuna is often the only fish eaten by children, whose growing brains face a greater risk from mercury poisoning.

''We've been asking FDA to do testing for five years, so we decided to do our own testing,'' Bender says.

Deborah Rice, a toxicologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said data from Florida, New Jersey and Mediterranean countries confirm the findings.

Calls to the U.S. Tuna Foundation, the tuna industry group, were not returned.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that is most dangerous to babies in the womb, infants and young children. It appears in fish because mercury pollution from the burning of fossil fuels ends up in lakes, streams and oceans, where microbes transform it into methylmercury. This is then eaten by smaller fish, which are in turn eaten by larger predatory fish -- including tuna.

Two kinds of tuna are generally sold in the USA, one labeled albacore, or white, and the other, generally from skipjack tuna, classified as ''light.'' Albacore are typically larger than the skipjack tuna, Bender says.

Scientists speculate that because larger fish tend to be older and eat bigger fish, they accumulate more mercury, which would account for the higher levels found in albacore tuna.

A recent EPA report found that 8% of women of childbearing age had mercury levels above EPA's ''virtual safe dose.'' Eleven states warn pregnant women to limit their consumption of canned tuna.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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