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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Whistleblower Critiques Study Regarding Mercury in Fish and Cardiovascular Health

Food Integrity Campaign | May 17, 2011

It’s old news that fish consumption increases our exposure to mercury, but a recent study explores the link between mercury-tainted fish and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Former GAP client and whistleblower Renee Dufault (who previously raised concerns about the presence of mercury in food products with High Fructose Corn Syrup) co-authored an article questioning the study’s finding that women with higher mercury exposure from fish consumption had lower cardiovascular disease risk.

“We scratched our heads to try to understand how this finding could be found,” Dufault’s article writes.

The critique, submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine which published the study (which received much popular media attention), highlighted the fact that women in the study had higher levels of selenium, which is believed to protect against mercury exposure.

Dufault and her fellow researchers also pointed out that the study participants were mostly white, educated U.S. adults and thought it unfortunate that the press reported the findings “as if they apply to everyone.” From the article:

Higher mercury exposure levels than those found by Mozaffarian D et al. could indeed contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, especially in the setting of selenium deficiency.

These findings cannot be generalized to apply to Americans in other ethnic groups that consume far more fish and have greater mercury exposures such as those found in a study published by Dr. Jane Hightower in 2006 (6).

Dufault’s ability to make an open and honest analysis of scientific data illustrates the importance of occupational free speech.

A survey of hundreds of FDA and USDA employees carried out by GAP coalition partner Union of Concerned Scientists showed that science was commonly obscured as agencies deferred to business interests in the food system.

“Hundreds of scientists and inspectors responsible for food safety have personally experienced political interference in their work, and that’s bad for public health,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “Both the administration and Congress need to act.”

Dufault knows what it’s like for politics to get in the way of science, as when the FDA officials told her to back off her HFCS investigation in 2005. Rather than be silent, she left the agency and ended up publishing her findings in two peer reviewed journals in 2009.

Patrice McDermott, director of (another long partner of GAP), acknowledged that while the Obama Administration is making efforts to “repair the severe damage done in the last decade to scientific integrity and the ability of government scientists to speak publicly from their knowledge, unacceptable risks and challenges remain for many who do so.”

We still have quite a journey ahead to ensure adequate free speech and whistleblower rights. Those who dare to speak up and counter mainstream opinion should be acknowledged for their bravery.


Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.