Drastically High Levels of Mercury Found in Whalemeat | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.06.2002
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Drastically High Levels of Mercury Found in Whalemeat

Gourmets with a penchant for far-eastern delicacies are in for a disappointment as Japanese researchers say consuming whalemeat could be highly poisonous after detecting astonishing levels of mercury.


Whales tend to accumulate mercury deposits easily

It has long been known that whales tend to accumulate heavy metals such as mercury in their tissues and internal organs when they eat contaminated fish and squid.

But the present levels discovered by a team of researchers at the University of Hokkaido in Japan have taken experts by surprise.

The British science magazine New Scientist reports in its latest issue that two of the 26 liver samples examined contained over 1970 micrograms of mercury per gram of liver. That is nearly 5000 times the Japanese government's allowed limit for mercury contamination – 0.4 micrograms per gram.

Researchers warn that with these concentrations, an adult weighing 60 kilograms would exceed the weekly mercury intake deemed safe by the World Health Organisation by eating just 0.15 grams of liver.

The New Scientist quotes from the researchers’ work, that "acute intoxication could result from a single ingestion."

Keeping in mind the health risk involved, researchers are now calling on the Japanese government to impose tighter regulations on the consumption of whale organs. Pregnant women are particularly at risk, they warn and could jeopardise the lives of their unborn children by consuming whalemeat.

The New Scientist reports grave health problems in the 1950s and early 1960s when hundreds of children around Japan’s Minamata Bay were born with horrific birth defects and brain damage after their mothers ate seafood contaminated with mercury compounds, which had been poured raw into the bay since the 1930s.

Meanwhile in another as yet unpublished study, the research team from the University of Hokkaido showed that rats suffered acute kidney poisoning after a single mouthful of the most highly contaminated liver.

Researchers told the New Scientist that while levels were lower in muscle, on an average it still contained 2.5 to 25 times the limit.

The samples were taken from small-toothed whales and dolphins – catches of which are not restricted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the international body that regulates whaling.

Japan has been leading the drive for the resumption of commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.

It believes that abundant whale species are consuming its fish stocks and should be hunted within designated limits. But the most recent IWC meeting last month ended in deadlock.

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