Textbook Example: How the Media Propagates the Mercury-Contaminated Fish Myth

The advocacy fear-mongers have repeatedly zeroed in on what the American public eats. Whether it’s fat, salt, sugar – there is a seemingly endless list of what is good for you and what isn’t. Recently one of the foods these self-proclaimed food police have warned about is seafood, specifically the dangers of mercury in fish.


Back in January, the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) sent several letters to the syndicated “Dr. Oz” program pointing out, among others, the following errors contained in a show that was originally broadcast Jan. 26 and re-aired nationally on June 3. On that broadcast, Oz told his viewers that mercury in fish was a concern for the general population.


“So the first poison we’re going to talk about is mercury in fish,” Oz said. “This is not just a concern for pregnant women and kids, although it’s a big problem for them as well. It’s a problem for all of us, according to a new study from the Center for Disease Control.”


That assertion is contradicted by the advice of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) according to NFI. The FDA Web site explains that “for most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern.”


As NFI points out, Oz also incorrectly asserted that the methyl mercury found in seafood enters the food chain because of manmade pollution. In fact those trace amounts are primarily from sources like underwater volcanic activity.  A scientific fact recently buttressed by two rulings in the California courts found that the vast majority of mercury in seafood was “naturally occurring.”


Dr. Oz also interviewed anti-seafood activist Dr. Jane Hightower about her mercury-focused practice and her “pet diagnosis” of “fish fog.” However, he failed to mention that there have been no cases of mercury poisoning, as the result of the normal consumption of commercial seafood.


“Many of my patients came in – I couldn’t find why they were all having trouble thinking, concentrating, tremors, insomnia, hair loss, muscle and joint pain, stomach upset,” Hightower said. “And so we started calling it ‘fish fog,’ being in the Bay Area, you know. And what was fascination is it goes beyond just symptoms. These are the lesser symptoms.”


So-called “fish fog” is not a medically accepted or scientifically supported diagnosis, according to NFI. Hightower’s published work applies anecdotal evidence to connect seafood consumption to her “made-up” diagnosis.


Even with all these overwhelming flaws in the broadcast, Oz’s show hasn’t corrected the record yet. A release issue by NFI pointed out the Oz program has been unwilling to respond directly to their inquiries, even after several attempts.


“Despite repeatedly bringing this to his attention, Dr. Oz refused to substantively answer NFI’s questions and instead responded with a letter from the program’s attorney,” the release said. “When NFI learned of ZoCo Production’s intention to re-run the program, it sent yet another letter to which the company has yet to respond.”


This isn’t the first time the so-called science of the Dr. Oz television show has been questioned. An April 2010 profile in The New York Times Magazine observed that the pressures of producing a daily television show had led Dr. Oz to dispense “a chaotic bazaar of advice, not all of it equally reliable and important.”  Another article that appeared that same month in the Chicago Tribune concluded that, “Oz's ventures also offer advice unsupported by science.”


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