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Gotcha! Science Catches up with Media on Seafood Safety
October 18, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
STATS told you so back in 2004; scientists blame media for giving public false message on risks from fish.

While there is some dispute over two new major scientific studies on how much eating oily fish actually wards off heart disease, both the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and a collaboration between Harvard’s Medical School, School of Public Health, and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital dismissed most of the risks of chemicals in fish as being inconclusive or negligible relative to fish’s dietary benefits.

According to Dariush Mozaffarian, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health,

“The levels of PCBs and dioxins in fish species are low, similar to other commonly consumed foods such as beef, chicken, pork, eggs, and butter. Importantly, the possible health risks of these low levels of PCBs and dioxins in fish are only a small fraction of the much better established health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids.

For example, for farmed salmon, the cardiovascular benefits are greater than the cancer risks by a factor of at least 300:1. With the exception of some locally caught sport fish from contaminated inland waters, the levels of PCBs and dioxins in fish should not influence decisions about fish intake.”

Only nine percent of the PCBs and dioxins in the U.S. food supply come from seafood, while over 90 percent comes from other food.

The research is a rebuff to ongoing claims by environmental activists that fish are a toxic threat to the public – and to the way the media covers these claims, and frames the whole issue of toxic risk into context. Or doesn’t.

However most of the news accounts of the two new studies omitted comments from the scientists that specifically blamed the press for public confusion and fear.  Among news organizations that took their medicine, the BBC quoted Harvard associate professor of ppidemiology and nutrition Eric Rimm:

“Unfortunately, the media and others may have contributed to this confusion by greatly exaggerating the unsubstantiated claim of a health risk from fish.”

And William Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.  told the Cape Cod Times that

“These health scares are not based on science and are largely overblown.”

That the health risks from fish were overblown is, in fact, directly attributable to the failure of the media to do all but the most cursory reporting on studies and claims claiming that chemicals in fish were a threat to the public. As STATS pointed out after researchers urged people to restrict their intake of farmed salmon in 2004, two out of every three headlines in U.S. newspapers were alarmist, while fewer than one in five stories explained the actual risk of getting cancer according to the EPA guidelines the researchers used. (The full STATS analysis is here.)

This risk turned out to be one in 100,000 if you ate eight ounces of raw U.S. farmed salmon with the skin on every month for 70 years – and that didn’t take into account diminishing PCB levels in farmed salmon due to changes in fish feed. Remove the skin (PCBS being fat soluble reside in fatty tissue) and cook the fish and the risk could be cut, at the very minimum, by half. 

Of course, the risk to begin with was so tiny as to be hypothethical, which is something journalists would have realized if they had followed the numbers in the story or – if innumerate – interviewed a toxicologist before rushing to be first with news.