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Mercury Laced Tuna on the Menu at Many Manhattan Sushi Restaurants

Jan 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Manhattan sushi lovers beware – that tuna you’re eating could be contaminated with toxic mercury, putting your health at risk.  Tests conducted by The New York Times on tuna sushi sold in 20 New York City restaurants and food stores found  mercury levels as high as 1.4 parts per million.  According to the newspaper, sushi from 5 of the 20 establishments had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) could take legal action to remove the fish from the market.

The mercury tests were done this October, and included tuna from some of the city’s most popular sushi restaurants, including Drew Nieporent's Nobu Next Door, part of the famed Nobu restaurant chain, as well as the high-end grocer, Gourmet Garage.   According to The New York Times, 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 FDA. can take food 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.

Higher-priced bluefin tuna sushi, such as that often served at the most prestigious restaurants, had the higher levels of mercury. The New York Times investigation found that 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.   Food stores were less likely than restaurants to carry the higher priced bluefin tuna sushi.

Mercury exposure is linked to a variety of health problems, and in 2004, the FDA 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, but fresh tuna was not included in the advisory. Shockingly, most of the fresh tuna sushi in the Times samples contained far more mercury than is typically found in canned tuna.

Mercury is not just dangerous to pregnant women and children.  In 2003, a study in “Environmental Health” linked low-level mercury exposure with impaired dexterity and concentration in adults. The greater the mercury level, the greater the effect, the researchers found. The study also suggested that adults exposed to mercury might be at risk for vision loss and numbness of fingers and toes as well as blood pressure and fertility problems.

In addition to neurological problems, some studies have linked mercury exposure to cardiovascular ills.  One study, reported in 2002 in “The New England Journal of Medicine”, looked at men in European countries and Israel. The mercury levels among men who had had a heart attack were 15 percent higher than those who had not.  

There are indications that mercury poisoning is becoming a bigger problem than once thought.  It has become increasingly common for doctors to report symptoms of mercury exposure in their patients who eat large amounts of fish.  And according to a study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene,   mercury blood levels among New Yorkers  were  three times higher than the national average, especially among Asian-born New Yorkers and the more affluent. It is thought that both groups eat more fish than many others in the city.

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