EarthTalk: I thought “farm raised”
was the way to go when buying fish, to avoid mercury contamination.
But are there other concerns about farm raised that make
some fish a poor choice for good health? What are the safest
fish to buy and which should be avoided? And what about
those frozen blocks of fish I get at Trader Joe’s?
Are they safe to eat?
—Tim Jeffries, Springfield, MA
fish can still absorb mercury, since most fish farms
are located in the ocean, close to or abutting the
shoreline. They can also absorb PCBs and dioxins,
as the near-shore waters they occupy are the first
stop for run-off from land-based sources of pollution.
Pictured: A fish farm in Shanghai.
© Ivan Walsh, courtesy Flickr
is a neurotoxin that settles into the ocean in large concentrations
after we spew it out of industrial smokestacks when burning
fossil fuels like coal and oil. It is then taken up by smaller
sea life such as plankton and then spread up through the
food chain as larger fish eat smaller ones. We humans then
eat the mercury-laced seafood—wild salmon, tuna, swordfish
and other fish—and breathe it in our air. Repeated
exposure to mercury pollution can cause brain, kidney and
developmental problems for people.
fish may have somewhat less exposure to mercury than their
wild free-foraging cousins because they are usually fed
a controlled diet, often consisting of more grains and soy,
a cheaper and more abundant source of calories, than fishmeal.
But they can still absorb mercury, since most fish farms
are themselves located in the ocean, just close to or abutting
fish can also absorb PCBs and dioxins, as the near-shore
waters they occupy are the first stop for run-off from land-based
sources of pollution. And the fact that their primary feed
source comes from conventionally grown terrestrial crops
means that their diets can include trace amounts of pesticides
and herbicides as well. Also, most farmed fish are exposed
to dose after dose of antibiotics to keep diseases and pests
at bay in their crowded underwater pens, much in the way
“factory farmed” land animals are drugged to
help them cope with cramped, unsanitary conditions. In fact,
studies have shown that farm-raised fish have more toxins
overall than their wild-caught cousins, though exceptions
of course do exist.
best way to know which fish are safe and which are not is
to download a region-specific seafood buying guide from
the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
These guides aid the decision-making process when shopping
for seafood in a store or ordering it at a restaurant by
dividing the fish available in that part of the country
into three categories: Best Choices, Good Alternatives and
bring your Seafood Watch guide to Trader Joe’s as
well—at least for now. In 2010, after months of lobbying
by Greenpeace and a growing number of concerned shoppers,
Trader Joe’s agreed to offer only “sustainable”
seafood in its stores by the end of 2012. To its credit,
they already removed endangered Chilean Sea Bass from shelves
in 2005, followed by Orange Roughy in 2009 and Red Snapper
the spirit of its recent pledge, however, Trader Joe’s
is now working with third-party, science-based organizations
to establish definitions and parameters for addressing customer
concerns about overfishing, destructive catch or production
methods, and the importance of marine reserves. Until 2013
at Trader Joe’s—and indefinitely at other stores
that haven’t made specific commitments regarding the
sustainability of their seafood—make sure to check
that labels disclose the type of fish for sale and its source
in regard to wild or farm-raised, and then check that info
against the Seafood Watch list.
Joe’s “Note to Our Customers about Trader Joe’s
EarthTalk: I heard that some reusable bags
contain lead. Is this a major health concern? Can’t
these bags be made to avoid such contamination?
—Donald Young, Cincinnati, OH
reusable shopping bags are petroleum-derived and
may contain other contaminants, including lead,
especially if they feature ornate designs or patterns.
The safe bet is to use cloth bags, like the one
pictured here from Eco Bags, because they are free
of lead, they last for years, and they are easy
credit: Eco-Bags Products, Inc.
that some reusable shopping bags for sale in U.S. stores
have been shown to contain lead, a neurotoxin linked to
developmental, brain and kidney problems. The non-profit
Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found that about 10
percent of the reusable bags it tested last year contained
at least minute levels of lead, with Disney’s “Toy
Story” and “Cars” plastic reusable shopping
bags topping the charts with excessive levels to the
tune of 15 times the federal limit for lead in children’s
Tests by other
groups confirm CEH’s findings. A November 2010 report
by the Tampa Tribune newspaper found elevated levels of
lead in reusable bags purchased at Winn-Dixie, Publix, Walmart
and Target stores—and prompted an ongoing investigation
by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) into whether
or not reusable shopping bags could be leaching lead into
food items that people later eat. And earlier this year,
the Center for Consumer Freedom, a trade group that opposes
bans on plastic bags, reported that some 21 different polypropylene
reusable bags sold at Safeway, Walgreen’s, Bloom and
other stores had lead content above 100 parts per million—the
highest level that many states allow in consumer packaging.
While the stores
in question have pulled any such questionable bags from
their shelves and in some cases stopped patronizing offending
suppliers, consumers should take matters into their own
hands with regard to selecting safer reusable shopping bags.
While plastic reusable shopping bags are a step in the right
direction compared to disposable plastic or paper bags,
they are still derived from petroleum, even if partly recycled,
and may contain other contaminants, especially if they feature
ornate designs or patterns. The safest bet, according to
CEH, would be cloth bags: Not only are they usually free
of lead or any other potentially hazardous substances, but
they also last for years and are easy to wash. One quality,
reliable source for cloth bags is the Ossining, New York-based
Eco-Bags Products, Inc., from which you can order conveniently
online and pay no shipping costs on any order of $100 or
to reduce or eliminate contaminants, public health experts
worry that reusable shopping bags could become a breeding
ground for impurities that lead to food poisoning, and recommend
washing them every few uses at least to ward off contamination.
A 2008 Environmental and Plastics Industry Council of Canada
study found mold and bacterial levels in reusable bags 300
percent greater than Canadian health standards allow. And
a 2010 joint University of Arizona and Limo Loma University
study found that 97 percent of users did not wash their
reusable shopping bags—which can harbor bacteria from
repeated exposure to meats and vegetables. Half of the 84
bags studied contained coliform, a bacterium found in fecal
matter, while 12 percent tested positive for E. coli.
The moral of
the story is to make sure your reusable shopping bags can
go through the clothes washer—and then wash them a
few times a month. This way you will steer clear of contaminating
the food you and your family eat with trace amounts of lead,
and as such you will sleep easier each and every night.
Loma Study; Eco-Bags
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