Guest Post: FDA Not Testing Gulf Seafood for Mercury, Arsenic or Other Heavy Metals Because “We Do Not Expect to See an Increase Based on this Spill”

Washington’s Blog

(see Blog version for embedded videos).

Congressman Markey’s subcomittee held a hearing Thursday on seafood and the oil spill.

Markey got the Food and Drug Administration to admit that fish are not being tested from oiled areas:

YouTube Video

The FDA also admitted that it is not testing for mercury, arsenic or other toxic heavy metals, because – wait for it – the FDA doesn’t expect to see an increase of these toxins from the oil spill:

YouTube Video

But in the real world:

Crude oil contains such powerful cancer-causing chemicals as benzene, toluene, heavy metals and arsenic.


As Bloomberg notes:

“Oil is a complex mixture containing substances like benzene, heavy metals, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons — all known to cause human health problems such as cancer, birth defects or miscarriages,” said Kenneth Olden, founding dean of New York’s CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, who is monitoring a panel on possible delayed effects.


Benzene, toluene, arsenic, heavy metals and many other components of crude oil … bioaccumulate.

The FDA’s statement is similar to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco’s recent assertion that oil doesn’t bioaccumulate in fish, and that fish naturally “degrade and process” the oil.

As a former long-time NOAA scientist points out, NOAA hasn’t exactly been neutral and objective with regards to Gulf oil spill science:

Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University … sees this latest incident as part of an ongoing problem.

Lubchenco had previously been a key figure in the patently low-ball estimates for the oil flow, and fervently resisted acknowledging the existence of underwater oil plumes, he said.

“I’ve worked with NOAA essentially all my career and I have many good friends there, and people I respect in the agency, scientists who are really solid,” MacDonald said.

“Throughout this process, it’s been troubling to me to see the efforts of people like that passed through a filter where the objective seems to be much more political and public relations than making comments to inform the public.

“The consistent theme,” MacDonald said, “seems to be to minimize the impact of the oil — and to act as a bottleneck for information.”

Unfortunately, this is how government today operates … its main activity is simply to try to cover up crises.

The FDA also admitted that it is not testing for the most toxic bioaccumulating metabolites of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Hat tip Florida Oil Spill Law.

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. Francois T

    Let me see if I can translate this frame of mind to the field Of clinical medicine.

    “I’m not going to do that test because I don’t expect the patient who has a history consistent with disease XYZ to have this disease.”

    How’s that working for you people? Would ya like your doc acting like that? Would you feel reassured and comfortable?


    BTW, where are the teevee news programs on that? Guess they’re too busy asking pundits about the rise in the number of people who believe Obama is a Muslim!

    Celente is right about the coming of the next Great Depression but not only for the reasons he laid out. He forgot to mention the exponential rise in duplicity and asshatery that permeates those in position of authority.

  2. Nameless

    I hate to break it to you, but arsenic and other heavy metals are naturally present in almost anything, including bottled water. Lead, for example, is present in bottled water in magnitudes on the order of 10 ppb (parts per billion), which is only slightly lower than the concentration of lead in typical crude oil (30 ppb). The question is about safe limits. In order to be at risk of any health effects of arsenic in crude on your body (say a 0.1% increase in a lifetime chance of cancer), you’d have to drink liters of crude every day for the rest of your life.

      1. Nameless

        Yeah. Food chain concentration. So what.
        Sorry, I just don’t see how the numbers can work out. The spill dumped around 20 kg of lead and 40 kg of arsenic, which is, by now, more or less equally spread throughout 2 million cubic kilometers of water in the Gulf. Commercial fishing industry in the Gulf brings about 1 billion kg of fish per year. This amount of fish naturally contains on the order of 10 TONS of arsenic. The significance of the spill eludes me.

        1. Skippy

          So the total volume (GOM) is the metric or is it the local area affected. Buy your science DDT per the atmospheric total volume should have not caused a problem…shezzz.

          Skippy…BTW your simplistic natural background is the worst sort of tripe.

          1. Nameless

            Is there any rational argument that can be made, that would convince you that the amount of heavy metals in the spill is insignificant? Or are you the kind that formulates a theory and then tries to fit the facts?

          2. Skippy


            Depths, currents, geology, all effect the distribution.

            The Gulf of Mexico yields more finfish, shrimp, and shellfish annually than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake, and New England areas combined.

            More than 400 species of shells can be found in the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf beaches are considered the best shelling beaches in North America.

            The world’s longest man-made beach is located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – 26 miles long.

            The Mississippi River deposits more than 3.3 million gallons of water into the Gulf every second.

            The Mississippi River contributes more than 90 percent of the fresh water entering the Gulf. (what is up-stream eh)

            Bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphin species in the Gulf and are estimated to number up to 45,000.

          3. Skippy

            Nameless, try any mining areal and its water tables, above and sub geography. Just because the area in question is a water basin does not preclude it to the same problems of strata, time lines, area affected, concentrations, etc.

          4. rjs

            i wonder if all the nameless apologists for BP who are showing up in comment threads like this all over the web are paid shills, just like BPs buying of google, yahoo & other search links & their barrage of tv ads…

          5. Costard

            Skippy, you have your choice: either the amount of heavy metals added to the gulf is insignificant, or the number of “contaminated” fish is insignificant. What in God’s name would be gained by spending tax dollars searching a haystack merely to prove that, somewhere, there is a needle? If the odds of you or I getting arsenic poisoning from seafood are statistically about the same, then what is your point?

            rjs – the premise of this argument, and many others that have sprung up in the wake of the spill, is either ignorant or dishonest. Some people object to this on principle. I, for instance, could give a —- about BP. But their act of incompetence is a real event with real victims, not grist for some ideological mill.

          6. Skippy

            Costard size does matter…eh.


            You should investigate LONG term effects of mining (not just production factors but including exposed tailing piles), time necessary for natural or reclamation to original background levels.

            Also the time lines associated with Agricultural use of petro based chemicals and repercussions.

            Skippy…if only it was bald eagles…hay.

  3. mg

    I have no plans to eat any seafood for at least a year. Why take the risk? Tough to ensure were your seafood comes from unless you caught it.

    Corexit is my area of concern.

      1. mg

        I figure a year will bring to light if there is any risk. Litigants will pay for investigations of the seafood since they look to be the predominant party harmed by the spill with real numbers of lost profits.

  4. Ishmael

    Is anyone surprised by this. How about this, it is against the law to test your cattle for madcow disease in the US. Can you believe that. Some cattlemen wanted to test their herds and market the beef to the Japanese as certified madcow free and the US govt would not let them. I am not sure but the USDA probably headed up the operation to prevent the testing.

    Well, I will eat seafood but I will know where it comes from. For instance Dunginess Crab, halibut, salmon and etc do not come from the gulf. I stopped eating gulf oyster 20 years ago (too warm of waters leads to bacteria). I would be reluctant to eat shrimp east of the Mississippi and will not eat Redfish and etc for several years. Need to know where the bluecrab come from before dining on them.

  5. ActrFshr

    When Bush was president, the left put so much pressure on him on environmental issues, and rightly so. So why now are they so quiet?

    The same thing happened with 90’s deficit hawks on the right turning into spending hogs during Bush’s presidency.

    all this “sensical” rhetoric by the party out of power seems like more and more of a sham every day.

    1. Piero

      I’m a libertarian. We’re always out of power. We’re the only ones who consistently oppose power. Follow us! Follow us to freedom!

  6. skippy

    Since inception, regulative agencies are nothing more than front men to their charges. Only a few with in the herd ever challenge their brothers, to effect change for the betterment of their customers a la the Hinze family and food poisoning, ethical production and distribution of food stuffs etc.

  7. Piero

    Hey, if you can get people to buy the official story that the unemployment rate is only 9.5%, then how much more ludicrous is this lie?

  8. doc holiday

    The FDA is well know for its on-going ability to shape the data to the model; we have a drug industry fueled by fraud. FDA is simply a snake oil sales conduit and in this case, a tainted fishing industry marketing agency. If the story about safe fish seems fishy — it is!

  9. Stumpy

    This should be treated like the tests enterprising people did on NYC sushi: just buy some fish and send it to a lab. Do a control with West coast fish if necessary.

    Silly to be arguing about what the numbers *might* be. Some enterprising journalist can change it overnight to a debate about what the numbers *are*.

  10. frosty zoom

    “The significance of the spill eludes me.”


    “The Gulf of Mexico yields more finfish, shrimp, and shellfish annually than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake, and New England areas combined.”


    being the seafood lover you seem to be, i’m sure you won’t mind scooping up a few dead mullet floating in the waters chandeleur sound.

    fire up the grill, honey!

  11. rd

    Here is a link to USEPA’s recent guidance on methylmercury levels in water and mercury in fish for use in Clean Water Act and other pollution regulation:

    An interesting quote from Section 5.4.7 from the guidance document on comparing the USEPA 0.3 ppm to FDA’s 1 ppm safe fish level:

    “The current FDA action level for mercury in fish is 1 mg/kg. Generally, an action level is different from a fish advisory limit—and even more different from a CWA section 304(a) criterion. FDA action levels are intended for members of the general population who consume fish and shellfish typically purchased in supermarkets or fish markets that sell products harvested from a wide geographic area. The underlying assumptions used in the FDA methodology were never intended, as local fish advisories are, to be protective of recreational, tribal, ethnic, and subsistence fishers who typically consume fish and shellfish from the same local waterbodies repeatedly over many years. EPA and FDA have agreed that the use of FDA action levels for the purposes of making local advisory determinations is inappropriate. Furthermore, it is EPA’s belief that FDA action levels and tolerances should not be used as a basis for establishing a state’s or tribe’s methylmercury criterion.”

    I wonder if this logic applies to people who would buy the same brand of fatty tuna or buy swordfish all the time at the grocery store?

    Here is a link to a very interesting recent study by USGS on mercury in streams and fish in the US. They looked at 291 streams across the US. Apart from the obvious finding that mercury is elevated in streams impacted by gold and mercury mining, they found that a quarter of the streams were over USEPA’s 0.3 ppm level and that many of these appear to be natural ecosystemes with little development.

    For those of you tracking the US government alphabet soup, we are already up to FDA, USEPA, NOAA, USGS weighing in on the subject of mercury and fish arriving at two different compliance criteria.

    PAHs are an interesting issue. They generally don’t concentrate well through the food chain because they are often toxic to the lowest levels in the food chain which is why they are the major component of creosote, used to treat wood to prevent rot. So high levels of PSH usually just mean you will not have a vibrant ecosystem which is bad in its own right.

    We also naturally form PAHs during the cooking process, especially during barbecuing. Here is an interesting study where they use benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)as a marker. Benzo(a)pyrene is typically the long-chain PAH selected to evaluate carcinigenic issues.

    For people worried about arsenic in fish, arsenic in groundwater drinking supplies is probably a much bigger issue if you have your own drinking water well. Here is some mapping from USGS.

    USEPA dropped the level of allowable arsenic in public drinking water supplies to 10 ppb from 50 a few years ago because of this risk.

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