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Tuna and mercury: New tests by Consumer Reports

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by Aimee Keenan-Greene  

America's taste for tuna is undeniable. 

Now Consumer Reports is once again casting light on the level of mercury in one of our favorite heart healthy fish.

New testing on samples from cans and pouches of tuna bought primarily from the New York metropolitan area and online confirm white albacore tuna usually contains far more mercury than light tuna, according to the January issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.

In a nutshell, every sample contained measurable levels of mercury.

They ranged from 0.018 to 0.774 parts per million. That's just under what's allowed to be sold. Consumer Reports says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can take legal action to pull products off the market if they contain 1 ppm or more of mercury.

The report reminds consumers that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says even at these levels women and children could consume an unsafe level of mercury by eating just one serving (2.5 ounces) of canned white tuna, or two servings of light tuna, per week.

According to The National Fisheries Institute, one in four Americans, about 23%, currently eat tuna once or more a week. About 17% serve it at least once a week, and half of all households serve canned tuna monthly. That adds up to about a billion pounds of tuna annually, second only in popularity to shrimp.

The FDA has been issuing warnings about mercury levels in fish since 1986. 

They say mercury naturally occurs in the environment, in volcanoes for example, but is also released into the air through industrial pollution from coal-fired power plants. When the heavy metal falls, it accumulates in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. Fish absorb the methylmercury when they eat and it builds up in them and is eventually passed through the food chain to people.

For children, and women who are pregnant, higher mercury levels may harm the developing nervous system. 

Federal health officials say fish can be part of a healthy diet. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which prevent heart disease.  Fish is a low-fat source of protein vitamins and minerals. People are urged to choose fish and shellfish lower in mercury like shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish - while avoiding shark, swordfish and mackerel.

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