Tuna from cans may contain higher levels of methylmercury than trusted experts believe is healthy, but it is not the only source of harmful heavy metal or chemical exposure, and represents the tip of a toxicity iceberg for which additional public awareness is needed. As reports on the the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) revision of seafood safety recommendations for pregnant women continue to prove, creating awareness around complex scientific topics can be challenging.
According to the EPA, toxic materials like methylmercury are of great concern because they are bioactive, bioaccumlative and persistent, which means that these chemicals not only have immediate toxic biological effects, but they can build up in the food chain and continue to cause effects over time. Other sources of toxicity besides the methylmercury in canned tuna include (but are not limited to) such things as lead, pesticides like DDT, dioxins, hexachlorobenze and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). While the focus of the current canned tuna debate has been on pregnant women, all populations are at risk from environmental toxins.
When confronted with complex scientific information, combined with conflicting evidence and mixed messages from government, industry, academia and activist groups, even the most well-intentioned individual may choose the path of least resistance by ignoring the issue entirely or making choices of exclusion. For example, in the case of methylmercury in canned tuna, health officials fear that consumers may choose to completely eliminate fish from their diets, which could lead to an undesirable backlash of health problems.
Additional public awareness is needed to help the public understand how the canned tuna discussions represent only the tip of a larger toxicity iceberg. Amid conflicting information, confusion, fear and avoidance, remains the need for individual consumers to take practical action, make rational decisions and choices, and ultimately achieve the health results that stem from eating a balanced diet.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Guidelines on the Prevention of Toxic Exposures, educating the public through cautionary, authoritarian lists of facts is not as effective a means of education as helping people explore attitudes, values and possible options on which to make choices and take action. Effective education is relevant to people’s everyday lives.
Unfortunately, as so often happens when budgets need to be cut, the first things to be trimmed are the public awareness campaigns. However, WHO states that a lack of resources need not be a barrier to education if relevant messages are seamlessly integrated into existing healthcare programs. However, using this approach has the potential to allow the messages to become commonplace or lost in the shuffle. With multiple urgent messages competing for attention at any given time, it can be easy for an individual to miss the very thing that should have been top-of-the-mind.
Getting scientific messages to the top of the public’s mind in a way that motivates behavior change requires innovative creativity. One example of such an innovative creative effort to educate the public about the dangers of environmental toxins is the Toxies, a satirical red carpet awards ceremony held annually to honor the “achievements” of dangerous environmental chemicals, which are anthropomorphized into would-be human actors. The Toxies production is a joint effort of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Change California coalition, and represents an important step toward raising awareness of environmental toxins in a memorable, meaningful way.
Whether the Toxies productions are successful in creating behavior change in regard to environmental toxicity remains to be seen. In the meantime, health professionals must be well educated on the health effects of toxins in the environment. This may involve study beyond the limited information regarding nutrition and environmental health that most allopathic medical professionals likely received during their medical education. However, as a resource for health information, medical professionals must be able to balance sound medical advice with an understanding of the popular misperceptions that may arise from increased public awareness.
Helping the public become aware that tuna is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as toxicity is concerned involves providing reasoned, rational, and practical advice that people can follow in their daily lives. In the case of the canned tuna debate, that means providing resources to help people understand and remember that fish is part of a healthy diet, and letting them know what options are available for making healthy choices with that information in mind.
Meanwhile, engaging the public in complex topics requires renewed creative efforts toward public education and outreach. Armed with the understanding that debates over methylmercury in canned tuna represent the tip of a toxicity iceberg, health information gatekeepers can better partner with government, industry, and consumers themselves to ensure that the additional public awareness that is needed on environmental toxins becomes reality.
By Lane Therrell
The Washington Post
EPA (Methylmercury Health Effects)
EPA (Multimedia Strategy for Priority Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) Chemicals)
Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
Physicians for Social Responsibility