The New York Times (pg. A1)  [Printer-friendly version]
January 23, 2008


By Marian Burros

Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20
Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet
of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by
the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food
and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish
from the market. The sushi was bought by The New York Times in

"No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those
found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three
weeks," said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of environmental and
occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in
Piscataway, N.J.

Dr. Gochfeld analyzed the sushi for The Times with Dr. Joanna Burger,
professor of life sciences at Rutgers University. He is a former
chairman of the New Jersey Mercury Task Force and also treats patients
with mercury poisoning.

The owner of a restaurant whose tuna sushi had particularly high
mercury concentrations said he was shocked by the findings. "I'm
startled by this," said the owner, Drew Nieporent, a managing partner
of Nobu Next Door. "Anything that might endanger any customer of
ours, we'd be inclined to take off the menu immediately and get to the
bottom of it."

Although the samples were gathered in New York City, experts believe
similar results would be observed elsewhere.

"Mercury levels in bluefin are likely to be very high regardless of
location," said Tim Fitzgerald, a marine scientist for Environmental
Defense, an advocacy group that works to protect the environment and
improve human health.

Most of the restaurants in the survey said the tuna The Times had
sampled was bluefin.

In 2004 the Food and Drug Administration joined with the Environmental
Protection Agency to warn women who might become pregnant and children
to limit their consumption of certain varieties of canned tuna because
the mercury it contained might damage the developing nervous system.
Fresh tuna was not included in the advisory. Most of the tuna sushi in
the Times samples contained far more mercury than is typically found
in canned tuna.

Over the past several years, studies have suggested that mercury may
also cause health problems for adults, including an increased risk of
cardiovascular disease and neurological symptoms.

Dr. P. Michael Bolger, a toxicologist who is head of the chemical
hazard assessment team at the Food and Drug Administration, did not
comment on the findings in the Times sample but said the agency was
reviewing its seafood mercury warnings. Because it has been four years
since the advisory was issued, Dr. Bolger said, "we have had a study
under way to take a fresh look at it."

No government agency regularly tests seafood for mercury.

Tuna samples from the Manhattan restaurants Nobu Next Door, Sushi
Seki, Sushi of Gari and Blue Ribbon Sushi and the food store Gourmet
Garage all had mercury above one part per million, the "action
level" at which the F.D.A. can take food off the market. (The F.D.A.
has rarely, if ever, taken any tuna off the market.) The highest
mercury concentration, 1.4 parts per million, was found in tuna from
Blue Ribbon Sushi. The lowest, 0.10, was bought at Fairway.

When told of the newspaper's findings, Andy Arons, an owner of Gourmet
Garage, said: "We'll look for lower-level-mercury fish. Maybe we
won't sell tuna sushi for a while, until we get to the bottom of
this." Mr. Arons said his stores stocked yellowfin, albacore and
bluefin tuna, depending on the available quality and the price.

At Blue Ribbon Sushi, Eric Bromberg, an owner, said he was aware that
bluefin tuna had higher mercury concentrations. For that reason, Mr.
Bromberg said, the restaurant typically told parents with small
children not to let them eat "more than one or two pieces."

Koji Oneda, a spokesman for Sushi Seki, said the restaurant would talk
to its fish supplier about the issue. A manager at Sushi of Gari, Tomi
Tomono, said it warned pregnant women and regular customers who "love
to eat tuna" about mercury levels. Mr. Tomono also said the
restaurant would put warning labels on the menu "very soon."

Scientists who performed the analysis for The Times ran the tests
several times to be sure there was no mistake in the levels of
methylmercury, the form of mercury found in fish tied to health

The work was done at the Environmental and Occupational Health
Sciences Institute, in Piscataway, a partnership between Rutgers and
the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Six pieces of sushi from most of the restaurants and stores would
contain more than 49 micrograms of mercury. That is the amount the
Environmental Protection Agency deems acceptable for weekly
consumption over a period of several months by an adult of average
weight, which the agency defines as 154 pounds. People weighing less
are advised to consume even less mercury. The weight of the fish in
the tuna pieces sampled by The Times were 0.18 ounces to 1.26 ounces.

In general, tuna sushi from food stores was much lower in mercury.
These findings reinforce results in other studies showing that more
expensive tuna usually contains more mercury because it is more likely
to come from a larger species, which accumulates mercury from the fish
it eats. Mercury enters the environment as an industrial pollutant.

In the Times survey, 10 of the 13 restaurants said at least one of the
two tuna samples bought was bluefin. (It is hard for anyone but
experts to tell whether a piece of tuna sushi is bluefin by looking at

By contrast, other species, like yellowfin and albacore, generally
have much less mercury. Several of the stores in the Times sample said
the tuna in their sushi was yellowfin.

"It is very likely bluefin will be included in next year's testing,"
Dr. Bolger of the F.D.A. said. "A couple of months ago F.D.A. became
aware of bluefin tuna as a species Americans are eating."

A number of studies have found high blood mercury levels in people
eating a diet rich in seafood. According to a 2007 survey by the New
York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the average level
of mercury in New Yorkers' blood is three times higher than the
national average. The report found especially high levels among Asian
New Yorkers, especially foreign-born Chinese, and people with high
incomes. The report noted that Asians tend to eat more seafood, and it
speculated that wealthier people favored fish, like swordfish and
bluefin tuna, that happen to have higher mercury levels.

The city has warned women who are pregnant or breast-feeding and
children not to eat fresh tuna, Chilean sea bass, swordfish, shark,
grouper and other kinds of fish it describes as "too high in
mercury." (Cooking fish has no effect on the mercury level.)

Dr. Kate Mahaffey, a senior research scientist in the office of
science coordination and policy at the E.P.A. who studies mercury in
fish, said she was not surprised by reports of high concentrations.

"We have seen exposures occurring now in the United States that have
produced blood mercury a lot higher than anything we would have
expected to see," Dr. Mahaffey said. "And this appears to be related
to consumption of larger amounts of fish that are higher in mercury
than we had anticipated."

Many experts believe the government's warnings on mercury in seafood
do not go far enough.

"The current advice from the F.D.A. is insufficient," said Dr.
Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at the
Harvard School of Public Health and chairman of the department of
environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark. "In
order to maintain reasonably low mercury exposure, you have to eat
fish low in the food chain, the smaller fish, and they are not saying

Some environmental groups have sounded the alarm. Environmental
Defense, the advocacy group, says no one, no matter his or her age,
should eat bluefin tuna. Dr. Gochfeld said: "I like to think of tuna
sushi as an occasional treat. A steady diet is certainly problematic.
There are a lot of other sushi choices."

CORRECTION: A chart with the continuation of a front-page article on
Wednesday about high mercury levels found in tuna sushi in New York
stores and restaurants referred imprecisely to what the Environmental
Protection Agency deems to be an acceptable level of mercury
consumption over a period of several months by an adult of average
weight. The agency uses the phrase "reference dose" to refer to the
daily level of mercury consumption it considers acceptable for a long-
term diet; it does not use the phrase "weekly reference dose." (To
find the acceptable weekly level of consumption over the long term,
the reference dose is multiplied by seven.)