Should canned tuna be banned from schools because of mercury?

Kimberly Gillan
Friday, September 21, 2012

A group of consumer groups are lobbying the US government to remove canned tuna from school canteens because they're concerned about mercury levels.

Fish can become contaminated with mercury when industrial pollution enters a waterway and too much mercury can cause problems with brain development.

The Mercury Policy Project of Montpelier, a non-profit group trying to reduce mercury in the environment, tested 59 samples of tuna cans and pouches and found mercury levels varied within each sample.

Overall the mercury levels were similar to the US government's findings, however they told USA Today that they were concerned that the methylmercury content ranged from 0.02 to 0.64 parts per million in light tuna and 0.19 and 1.27 parts per million in albacore tuna.

"On any given day in a given school, children eating the same meal could get mercury doses that vary by tenfold, just because of the variability of the chunk of meat in the packet," said Edward Groth, author of the report.

However Dr Maxine Bonham, a senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Monash University, told ninemsn the health benefits of eating fish outweigh the mercury risks.

"The mercury content of all processed or canned fish is regulated and there are set limits that it should be kept within and those limits have been proven as safe," she said.

"In the study, there has been no long-term evidence that consumption … would have any adverse outcomes on a child's development."

Food Standards Australia recommend children eat two to three 75gm serves of fish per week or just one serve of flake, marlin, sea perch and swordfish, which have a higher mercury risk.

"The World Health Organisation have recently come out and said the benefits of eating fish, in terms of cognitive development, outweigh any adverse affect that mercury would have in the system," Dr Bonham said.

"The emphasis is on increasing fish consumption, rather than worrying about the content of mercury. There are requirements around certain fish that are good to avoid during pregnancy and in a vulnerable group like young children but the overall evidence leans beneficially towards the protective and beneficial effects of the fats in fish."

Dr Bonham said you would need an "awful lot" of mercury to impair cognition.

"The main cases that have shown mercury poisoning have been industrial pollution when huge amounts have gotten into the environment and contaminated people through eating," she said.

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