WASHINGTON -- Most Americans face little danger of mercury poisoning from the fish they eat at home or in restaurants, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday in a study evaluating the risks of various mercury emissions.
But the agency warned that a small percentage of pregnant women -- those living in subsistence fishing communities -- should be cautious. And critics said the data were reason enough to place strict limits on mercury emissions from utility and manufacturing plants and other sources, something the EPA declined to do.
"Everybody knows that mercury is bad news," said Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now we can move on and start discussing control mechanisms so that we don't have to put out stories in the future saying, `Don't eat fish!"'
Mercury is a heavy metal released by the burning of some fuels and some industrial processes. In elevated doses, it can be dangerous for humans. Children who were exposed as fetuses may develop certain motor skills more slowly and score lower on neurological tests.
Most people ingest mercury through fish, which are exposed to the metal when rain washes it into rivers and the seas. But the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration agree that the levels of mercury in commercially available fish are no cause for concern.
"The typical U.S. consumer eating fish from restaurants and grocery stores is not in danger of consuming harmful levels of methylmercury from fish and is not advised to limit fish consumption," said the EPA's eight-volume study, which Congress ordered in 1990.
However, the report did warn that members of subsistence fishing communities and others who regularly eat large amounts of noncommercial fish from contaminated areas are at higher risk. Pregnant women from this group were a particular area of concern.
"In this report, an analysis of dietary surveys led the EPA to conclude that between 1 and 3 percent of women of childbearing age ... eat sufficient amounts of fish to be at risk from methylmercury exposure," the study said.
Solomon of the NRDC, which joined with the Sierra Club to pressure the EPA in court to release its study, said the data also suggested that mercury levels in some commonly consumed fish, such as tuna, were "approaching levels of concern."
"This is a call to action," she said.
But the EPA researchers declined to quantify the risk from mercury exposure, citing a lack of data, and the report made no new policy recommendations, leaving unchanged safe-level guidelines set in 1995.
Richard Wilson, an acting assistant administrator at EPA, said that mercury emissions are already declining because of regulatory efforts and changes in manufacturing.
"We've been moving to lower the use of and the emission of mercury in recent years, and that's been relatively successful," he said.
Nevertheless, others who follow the issue closely said the study would at least give states data they needed to begin assessing what steps should be taken to further control mercury in the environment.
"The point is not the safety of the commercial fish; the point is the lack of safety of the noncommercial fish," said David Brown, a toxicologist with the Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management, an association funded by eight Northeastern states. "What the study ought to lead to is figuring out who's at risk and making sure that they're protected."
The EPA has already taken steps to reduce mercury emissions from municipal waste combustors, hazardous waste combustion facilities and medical waste incinerators.
The study said the agency was "assessing any need for enhanced research on health effects, research on new pollution control technologies, community right-to-know approaches and additional regulatory actions."