When the danger of mercury is addressed, usually it revolves around the high levels found in fish and not the world’s most popular dietary staple. But a recent study conducted in China shed light on the risks posed by a readily eaten food worldwide: rice.
The study focused in parts of China where fish is rarely consumed, yet a huge dietary contamination in rural China’s population has been noted. The Guizhou province is the home to 12 large mercury mining operations along with other coal-powered operation. These sorts of operations release tons of air and water pollution infected by large quantities of mercury. Although the study showed that the amounts of mercury intake varied across the region, all of the local food supply had one thing in common- rice accounted for at least 94% of the daily intake of what is know as “methyl mercury”, the most neurotoxic of mercury today. Why is this of concern to us?
Mercury poisoning of this sort has the potential to damage the brain, ranging from lowering the IQ of babies still in the womb to raising blood pressure and the likelihood of heart disease in adults. While this may not be of a concern to many here in the U.S., in other parts of the world rice accounts for a majority of daily caloric intake. Due to the high levels of metylated mercury in locally grown product, contaminated rice has the potential to contribute more mercury in a year than fish do in coastal Japan or Norway.
While communities like Guizhou were the subject of the study, it would be naïve to assume high levels of mercury are not present elsewhere. But this is something that later studies will illuminate for us. Yet considering the ever-expanding global economy, we cannot assume that some contaminated rice may not reside in our grocery stores as we speak. It is important to be aware of both the causes of high mercury levels in such a prevalently consumed food, and what we can do to prevent damage to many of the world’s rural communities.