How Mercury-Tainted Tuna Damages Fetal Brains

By Sandra Steingraber
December 27, 2004

Last spring, I received a tantalizing invitation 
from the editor of Childbirth Forum: write a 
story on mercury in fish and the resulting risks 
to pregnant women. This was a topic dear to my 
heart. During the four years I researched fetal 
toxicology at Cornell University, I had become 
alarmed about the breach between what the 
scientific community knows about the effects of 
prenatal mercury exposure (a lot) and what the 
general public knows (very little).

Pregnant myself during some of this time, I 
experienced this disconnect directly. I spent one 
Valentine's Day poring through the data that 
inform the Food and Drug Administration's ongoing 
recommendation that pregnant women avoid 
swordfish. Then I joined my husband for a meal in 
a nearby restaurant. I was hardly seated when the 
waiter suggested to me-so pregnant I couldn't 
pull my chair up to the table-the swordfish 
special. Behind the bar was a sign warning 
pregnant women that alcohol can cause birth 
defects. No sign appeared in the menu warning 
pregnant women that mercury in certain fish can 
cause fetal brain damage.

The book I eventually wrote on environmental 
threats to pregnancy devotes two chapters to 
mercury. It was this book, Having Faith: An 
Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, that prompted 
Alice Berman, editor of Childbirth Forum, to 
solicit my article.

I said yes. Sponsored by Pampers diapers, the 
magazine has a print run of 20,000, and most of 
its readers are nurses who work as childbirth 
educators, an audience I had long wished to 
reach. So, with my own childbirth instructor in 
mind, I traced the flow of mercury through the 
human food chain, starting with its introduction 
into the atmosphere and ending with its presence 
in tuna fish sandwiches. I finished my story 
before the deadline. The editor liked it. It went 
out for external review. The reviewers liked it. 
The story was accepted for publication.

At about the time I started checking my mailbox 
for copies, I found out my article would not be 
published after all. In an apologetic e-mail, 
Berman forwarded me the following message, which 
she said she had received from the group that 
handles the publication's production: "Although 
the feature is relevant, well-researched, and 
well-written, it cannot be used for Childbirth 
Forum at this time based on a directive from the 
newsletter's sponsor, Procter & Gamble.  The 
information about mercury and fish must be 
written about in a larger context of diet during 
pregnancy, and is too 'controversial' to feature 
as it is."

I'm a biologist. I always thought that the food 
chain was our diet. But maybe I'm missing 
something. You tell me. Here is the story, 
"Mercury in Pregnancy: Eat Fish With Caution," 
that Procter & Gamble doesn't want the teachers 
of pregnant women to read: