If approved by the White House, the FDA's position would reverse the government's current policy that certain groups -- women of childbearing years, pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and children -- can be harmed by the mercury in fish and should limit their consumption.
The FDA's recommendations have alarmed scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, who in internal memos criticized them as "scientifically flawed and inadequate" and said they fell short of the "scientific rigor routinely demonstrated by EPA."
The FDA sent its draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, to the White House Office of Management and Budget as part of the FDA's effort to update the existing health advisory. The report argued that nutrients in fish, including omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals could boost a child's IQ by three points.
The greatest benefits, the FDA report said, would come from eating more than 12 ounces of fish a week, which is the current limit advised for pregnant women, women of childbearing age, nursing mothers and young children.
FDA spokesman Michael Herndon declined to discuss the draft report. "As a science-based regulatory agency we periodically and routinely review and analyze scientific evidence about health effects of FDA-regulated products," he wrote in an e-mail. "We do not comment on draft reports that are undergoing internal review."
Benjamin H. Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said, "EPA is working closely with other agencies in the scientific review of this report to better understand the risks and benefits of fish consumption."
The FDA and the EPA both play a role in protecting the public from mercury contamination. The EPA investigates and regulates mercury and other contaminants in recreationally caught fish, while the FDA regulates mercury in seafood sold in markets and restaurants. States rely on the federal agencies in issuing their own advisories.
In 2004, the two agencies issued their first joint advisory, suggesting that women of childbearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and children stop eating four species of fish considered especially high in mercury: swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel. At the same time, the government advised limiting consumption of other mercury-contaminated fish.
Mercury can damage the neurological development of fetuses and infants. Recent studies have suggested that mercury may also pose a health risk for adults, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The two agencies are supposed to work together to regularly review the advisory, but EPA sources said the FDA went ahead with its own proposal earlier this year, not consulting the EPA until the document was nearly finished.
The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, wrote yesterday to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson and urged him to fight the FDA's recommendations.
"This is an astonishing, irresponsible document," said Richard Wiles, the environmental group's executive director. "It's a commentary on how low FDA has sunk as an agency. It was once a fierce protector of America's health, and now it's nothing more than a patsy for polluters."
Kathryn Mahaffey, who was the EPA's top mercury scientist until she left the agency in August to become a lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health, said the FDA used an "oversimplified approach" that could increase the public's exposure to mercury.
But Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, applauded the FDA's efforts. "This is a science-based approach," he said. "And you start to see a picture emerge that shows the clear benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risks of a trace amount of mercury in fish."