“Poison is bad.”

That’s a safe and simple starting place to a rather complicated but important issue regarding the mercury that is contained in our local fish. The statement is of course true, and mercury is indeed a breed of poison (a negligible one in small doses), but how relevant is it in terms of what we ingest from our local waters? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The Sierra Club environmental group will inform you, in no uncertain terms, that this toxin is a threatening concern for the seafood-consuming public and that large-scale measures need to be enacted for the safety of the masses.

The Sierra Club especially brings to light mercury’s effect on pregnant women and unborn children — a sensitive area, to be sure.

“In 2004, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimated that one in six U.S. women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood high enough to put her baby at risk,” the club stated on its Web site. “That means approximately 630,000 newborn babies are at risk each year.”

While this information is arguable, it makes its point to be careful with mercury levels when a fetus is in the mix.

But what is concerning to other factions — ones that feel the mercury threat is being overblown — is the possible inferences that groups like the Sierra Club make with these types of statistics.

Organizations that are in the business of promoting fishing — recreationally or professionally — feel these connotations can be damaging.

“The mercury-in-fish dietary guidelines issued by the Food and Drug Administration are only for pregnant women, women who are planning to become pregnant, and young children,” states FishScam.com, a site dedicated to exploring an alternate view regarding mercury contamination. “And even then, the FDA’s guidelines are overly cautious.

“The FDA has issued no consumption advice about the amount of fish that’s safe for older kids, teens, men, post-menopausal women, and women who don’t plan to become pregnant.

“In the FDA’s own words, its mercury guideline ‘was established to limit consumers’ methylmercury exposure to levels ten times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects.’ So even if a pregnant woman consumed twice as much mercury as the FDA’s recommended limit, she would still be protected by a 500-percent cushion.”

FishScam.com goes on to refute the report that the Sierra Club uses which states that every year in the United States, 630,000 children are born with mercury levels in their blood that put them “at risk” for neurological disorders later in life, maintaining that erroneous research began to circulate.

“Kathryn Mahaffey, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, created this outrageous statistic by estimating how many children would be born each year to U.S. women whose blood-mercury levels are above the EPA’s ‘reference dose’,” Fish Scam.com alleges. “But her calculation was not part of any official EPA statement, and the agency hasn’t publicly supported it,” FishScam.com asserts.

What the EPA does say and support is that mercury can be potentially harmful, but ingested in normal and reasonable doses poses no substantial risk.

“Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages,” stated information supplied by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Research shows that most people’s fish consumption does not cause a health concern.

“However, it has been demonstrated that high levels of methylmercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm the developing nervous system, making the child less able to think and learn.”

While the FishScam.com Web site posts testimonials from doctors and scientists, some of whom argue any health risks associated with mercury at all, the general consensus seems to point towards a moderate monitoring of the amount of mercury to ingest.

Although the Sierra Club contends that eating more than a can of albacore tuna a week is unsafe, the pragmatic view, at least at this point in the research history, seems to suggest being careful about eating large amounts of certain species such as shark and tuna.

But even if a consumer overdoes the recommended intake, the Food and Drug Administration’s advice is metered and calm.

“One week’s consumption of fish does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all,” says the FDA’s recommendation. “If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.”

For the FDA’s recommendations, log onto www.fda.gov and type “mercury” into the search box.