Friday, March 19, 2010

Tuna sandwich, hold the mercury

Tuna sandwich, hold the mercury

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When I first heard about the unsafe levels of mercury in tuna, I didn’t really care. I hardly ate tuna anyway, so I didn’t even look up how much was safe to eat; I just stopped eating it completely.

One day, however, I read an article about how good fish is for you and figured it was finally time to find out how much tuna I could have. Surely it was safe to eat half of a can every now and then. I found a calculator online that determines how much tuna is safe according to your sex and weight (http://www.ewg.org/tunacalculator), and discovered that my recommended limit for albacore—the white, solid, delicious kind of canned tuna—was:

NONE AT ALL.

While it’s true that eating half of a can a week won’t kill me, the Environmental Working Group recommends “that women of childbearing age… not eat albacore tuna at all” because it’s particularly high in mercury, which can cause serious birth defects. I’m not even sure if I want to have kids, but now I gotta decide right this minute just so I can figure out whether I should have a can of tuna? (Good thing this isn’t happening with chocolate or that decision would be made for me.)

It’s not that I loved albacore that much. (I could always console myself with the fact that I could have two whole cans of light tuna—the darker, flakier stuff—per week.) It was more the principal of the thing. There are already scores of guidelines as to how much of each food we should eat to make sure we don’t get too much cholesterol, fat, sodium, etc. And now we have to worry about getting too much poison?

I felt that sense of indignation as when a freedom, however small, has been stripped away. It’s completely different from being told to avoid sugar, which has never been remotely healthy. Tuna, on the other hand, had been a great source of low-fat protein for thousands of years. But now, because the ocean has become so polluted, mercury (a by-product of coal) in sea creatures rises with every step up the food chain, so that by the time it gets to tuna, the concentration has reached hazardous levels.

Everyone knows pollution is bad. It makes our skylines a little hazier, the beach a little cruddier, but to me, it felt like a manageable problem, one that we were working on, and not one that had intruded on my life that much. But when I learned that I shouldn’t even eat tuna anymore, I felt pollution had crossed the line. Whereas before I had an intellectual understanding that we were making our planet unlivable, I finally got it on a visceral level. How could we possibly survive if we made all our food inedible? Removing albacore from our diets is a relatively minor change, but what’s next?

So what can we do to make tuna fish salads safe again? Well, half of the mercury content in tuna comes from man-made sources, primarily coal plants. To lower coal plants’ mercury output, the US Department of Energy is pushing for “clean coal,” whereby mercury is captured instead of being released into the atmosphere. The by-products of even clean coal, however, still have to be disposed of in a hazardous landfill, and the process still emits non-mercury pollutants that contribute to global warming and even cause cancer. One step toward solving the problem: We need to switch over to renewable energy sources like wind power, and the easiest way you can do that right now is to sign up with your electric company’s green energy program.

You can do things like remembering to turn the light off when you leave the room, unplugging cell phone chargers to eliminate “vampire power,” and buying EnergyStar appliances, but even if you do all those things, the primary source of your energy (depending on where you live) will come from coal. Some energy companies (like the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles, where I live) makes switching over super easy: you can do it all online.

For extra credit, try limiting how many new things you buy. Manufacturing new goods takes an enormous amount of energy, and a lot of that energy comes from coal plants. Instead, hit up thrift stores or Craigslist, or even get free stuff from Freecycle. I’ve gotten so much awesome stuff from people—FOR FREE! End tables, moving boxes, even a vintage typewriter!

All these things will reduce the amount of coal we use, which will reduce the amount of mercury unleashed into the world, how much gets into our tuna, and how much of it ends up on our plates.

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