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At about the time I started checking my mailbox for copies, I found out my article would not be published after all.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: