Mercury Megadose? No Proof in Sight
23 Apr, 2015
While I couldn’t make the test results or the University that did the testing public I did share the results and the University with Ret Talbot. Who wrote an article with is take this situation and the data behind it [sic]. Now I was painted as the man who cried wolf but that is just one mans [sic] take on it. —Thomas Brown of Thomas Vision Reef
By Ret Talbot
Read Part I of this Report: Crying Wolf: Mercury in Aquarium Fish Foods, Social Media and the Controversy that Shouldn’t Have Been
Read Part III of this Report: Test Results Refute Mercury Scare in Frozen Fish Food
On Monday, April 20, 2015, CORAL Magazine published my article titled “Crying Wolf: Mercury in Aquarium Fish Foods, Social Media and the Controversy that Shouldn’t Have Been” regarding a report that a popular but unnamed frozen fish food contained extremely high levels of mercury. In my coverage, I concluded that the claim, which was made by Thomas Brown of Thomas Vision Reef, a YouTube “aquarium web series,” was unsubstantiated and highly suspect. After my article was published, Brown revealed he had sent the report’s results to me before I published, writing on a blog he created for discussing the issue:
While I couldn’t make the test results or the University that did the testing public I did share the results and the University with Ret Talbot. Who wrote an article with is take this situation and the data behind it. Now I was painted as the man who cried wolf but that is just one mans take on it.
Since Brown published this statement, I have received numerous inquiries about the test results. The purpose of this blog entry is to respond to those inquiries as best as I am able, and bring readers up to speed on the most recent developments in this ongoing story. To briefly recap the story, the allegations of high mercury concentrations in a popular frozen fish food came Friday, April 17, 2015, from Brown, who claimed tests he commissioned with an associate, performed by “a local university,” yielded a result estimated to be in excess of 20mg per gram of mercury in a sampled fish food. Given that this result is 20,000 times the FDA threshold for human consumption and more than 10,000 times greater than concentrations of mercury in the most mercury-laden fish included in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) mercury in commercial seafood database, Brown’s allegations received immediate attention. They were extraordinary–sensational, even. As a journalist who covers fisheries issues and seafood, including several stories about mercury in seafood, I was very interested in the claims being made by Brown.
A Data-Centric Story
I knew immediately that telling this story needed to be about the data, so I obviously wanted to see the data supporting Brown’s claim. Before publishing my article in CORAL Magazine, I did what any journalist would have done: I requested the test results from Brown directly. After negotiating terms that were acceptable to Brown, he sent me the results. As per the terms, I agreed to keep my correspondence with Brown off-the-record unless legal action compelled me to disclose information or in the case that the data themselves revealed a threat to human health.
Once my article was published, Brown told people he had sent me the results, saying, “I knew his article was not going to be in my favor but at least people would know we really had testing done.” The results Brown sent me included the names of the institutions involved with the testing, partial results of the tests and some commentary about the results. All of these details were to remain off-the-record, based on Brown’s terms under which he shared the results with me. After reviewing what he sent me, I concluded the information was not terribly credible in and of itself. The results were in the form of a forwarded email, not a PDF or a photograph of actual results (the latter is the sort of documentation an editor would require to feel confident even considering publishing such an extraordinary claim).
While I didn’t automatically assume the results had been altered because of the way they were sent, I had no way to verify they had not been. Based on what Brown sent me, it appeared tests had been done. The alternative–that the information I was sent was completely fabricated–seemed a stretch, but independent verification would be necessary to validate the results themselves, especially the mercury result.
I can confirm the results Brown sent me stated: “Estimated mercury levels exceeded 20mg per gram of product,” just as Brown claims. That result, however, remains hard to believe, especially given the fact that the format of the report itself lacks credibility. Remember, we’re talking 20,000 times the FDA threshold and more than 10,000 times greater than concentrations of mercury in the most mercury-laden fish included in the FDA’s mercury in commercial seafood database.
Again, as any journalist would do when working on a story that hinges on the data, I reached out to several experts in the field, including a marine biologist named David Taylor. Taylor’s research focuses on mercury contamination in fishes. Working out of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, Taylor regularly runs mercury analysis on marine-based samples in his lab. Taylor says if he got the result Brown reported back from a lab, he would assume it was an error and request additional analyses to verify the accuracy of the measurement.
Taylor explains that the instrument he uses to measure the mercury content of biological samples could theoretically yield a result as high as Brown’s but that such a result would be based on an extrapolation beyond the range of his calibration points. “A sample with a mercury concentration of 20 milligrams per gram is equivalent to 20,000,000 nanograms per gram,” says Taylor. “Assume that the sample being analyzed weighed 10 milligrams–or 0.01 grams. This means the sample being analyzed has a total mercury amount of 200,000 nanograms.” The instrument Taylor uses has a typical working range of 0.05 to 600 ng, and the highest point on his calibration curve is approximately 800 ng. In other words, Brown’s result is greater than 19 million nanograms more than the high end of the normally tested range.
“I create calibration curves using a combination of aqueous and solid certified reference materials,” Taylor says, “and the range of calibration points are purposefully chosen to encompass the mercury levels I anticipate measuring in the unknown samples.” He says he is not able to create a calibration point of 200,000 ng with the certified reference materials (CRM) he currently uses. “I would not be able to add enough CRM sample to the instrument to achieve this high level of Hg.” Is the result Brown reported possible? Taylor says he never likes to say impossible, but he says it’s “highly unlikely.”
“I suspect an error has been made in reporting the units,” Taylor concludes.
Given the poor documentation, the lack of verification and the “highly unlikely” result Brown reported, I was not, as Brown indicated in his own public comments, convinced that a lab had performed tests and actually found this extraordinarily high mercury result.
Beyond the Report
Given that the report Brown gave me did not hold up to scrutiny based on numerous factors, I, as any journalist would do, went back to Brown and asked to see any additional documentation he possessed. He said he did not have any. I asked to be put in touch with the lab so I could verify that testing had been done and the result was accurate. Brown was unable to put me in touch with the lab, but he did agree to put me in touch with “his associate,” who he thought could put me in touch with the lab. According to Brown’s public statements, this associate was the one with whom he was working to test “the top 3 frozen fish food in the reef aquaeium [sic] industry for a video.”
I did speak at length with Brown’s associate and, while I cannot reveal his name nor the full content of that discussion at this time because of the terms under which he agreed to speak to me, I can confirm that I stand behind what I published earlier this week, despite all the information I have seen both on- and off-the-record. I can also confirm that, based on additional documents I obtained in the course of my research, it appears clear that Brown took the action to share this extraordinarily high mercury result alone and against direct instructions from the person who provided him with the results.
According to an unnamed source who has firsthand knowledge of the testing, as well as from documents obtained from Brown and elsewhere, Brown was clearly instructed not to share the results because the results were not verified, the data was incomplete, and the mercury result was quite likely in error. Furthermore, the individual Brown identified as his associate told me he was not working with Brown to test “the top three frozen reef aquarium foods” (their description) as Brown has claimed; rather the tests were, according to the source, part of his own research in pursuit of an academic degree.
In addition to speaking to Brown’s associate, I, again as any journalist would do, reached out to the three entities involved with the testing and which were listed on the results Brown sent me and in other documents I obtained. Two of these entities are large, credible institutions, and, as Brown indicated in his public comments, one is a large university with an excellent reputation. The third entity is a lab associated by name with the university. According to the information Brown sent me, these institutions were working on the results “in coordination.” After fairly extensive investigation on their end, public information officers and media relations staff at the two institutions indicated that they had no knowledge of the existence of the lab listed in the report. This is despite the fact that the lab listed on the results uses the name of the university.
Without Credible Data, Retract
At the time this piece went to publication, Brown stands by the mercury results he disclosed, despite the lack of any credible support that the data are in fact correct. “I stand by the way I released the info because without that these foods would not now be getting tested,” wrote Brown on 20 April in his blog. “In my opinion what I learned is that there are people out there that don’t want you to ask questions. I am happy with the way things turned out as it has showed me that there are more topics that I need to cover on my TVR channel.”
Brown’s reasoning here is akin to a resident in a town saying he possesses lab results showing dangerous levels of radiation leaking from the local nuclear power plant. It is akin to that resident publicly standing by those results and creating fear and uncertainty in the town’s population despite the fact that the results are challenged and called into question by healthcare workers and experts in the fields of radiation exposure and nuclear energy. It is akin to the resident standing by those results despite the fact that the results lack credibility and that the institutions named in the results publicly disavow them. It is akin to that resident, in the face of all this credible opposition, positioning himself as a whistleblower and alluding to industry cover-ups–saying he’s pleased he started an important conversation about nuclear power. Without credible data, and in the face of such overwhelming reasonable doubt, the actions of this resident are clearly irresponsible and unethical. They may even be illegal vis-à-vis yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no credible evidence of a fire.
If Brown wishes to regain his credibility, he will have to provide credible data to support his extraordinary claims, or else publicly retract his statements concerning excessively high concentrations of mercury in the frozen food in question. When asked Tuesday night if he still stands by the information he disseminated, he declined to comment, responding via Facebook message, “I have been told by my Lawyer to not talk on this subject anymore until other test results come out from sources other than myself…. For now I am just waiting on additonal [sic] test results and will not be talking further on the matter.” Brown continues to maintain his blog “for all those who would like to continue the debate”–a debate about lab results that have been thoroughly discredited, debunked and dismissed.
Ramifications of Brown’s Allegations
While Brown has not named the manufacturer of the food publicly, leaving his unsubstantiated public statements out in the public sphere casts doubts on all frozen fish foods comprised of ingredients proven to benefit fish health. The onus should not be on a business to prove its innocence in response to any unsubstantiated accusation that an individual makes. The onus is upon the individual to bring forward credible data.
Nonetheless, Brown’s statements have created uncertainty–a void that will now need to be filled, especially as long as Brown continues to refuse to retract his statements or provide additional, credible data. Given the ongoing potential harm to businesses and fish health as a result of Brown’s actions, I would not be surprised to see a coalition of industry manufacturers demand publicly that Brown retract his statements. The manufacturers with whom I have spoken both on-and off-the-record are concerned about the quality of their product, the reputation of their businesses and the safety of the pets their food feeds. Additional third-party testing is underway, and should be available soon, but there is no reason to leave this uncertainty and fear created by Brown unaddressed any longer.
The devil is in the data, Mr. Brown.
About the author
Ret Talbot is an award-winning writer and photojournalist who writes frequently on sustainability issues. He lives with his wife, artist Karen Talbot, in Rockland, Maine.