Jenna McLaughlin

Jenna McLaughlin

DC Editorial Fellow

Jenna McLaughlin is an Editorial Fellow in Mother Jones' Washington Bureau. She has previously written and worked for DC Magazine and Baltimore City Paper. She recently graduated from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars Department. E-mail her at jmclaughlin@motherjones.com.

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Jenna McLaughlin is an Editorial Fellow at Mother Jones' Washington Bureau. She has previously written and worked for DC Magazine and Baltimore City Paper, and her work appears online at Elite Daily, Untapped Cities, and more. She enjoys running half marathons, sea kayaking, and trying new craft beers. She often covers matters of culture and the environment. She is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars department, and you can reach her at jmclaughlin@motherjones.com.

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Should Pregnant Women Eat Zero Tuna?

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food-safety experts at Consumer Reports crunched the numbers on mercury levels in seafood—and they have a new recommendation for pregnant women: Don't eat tuna at all.

The FDA recommends that pregnant and nursing women consume between 8 and 12 ounces of fish per week to provide proper nutrition for a baby's brain development and overall health. But some fish are very high in mercury, a neurotoxin that can lead to serious cognitive problems and birth defects in children and babies. And the mercury levels in oceans are rising—humans have tripled the mercury content in oceans since the Industrial Revolution—leading to further mercury absorption by predators like tuna.

Consumer Reports provides charts to help curb mercury levels during fish consumption. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

A team at the Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed data from the Food and Drug Administration's chart on mercury levels in seafood and determined that consuming 6 ounces of albacore tuna in a week—the level recommended as safe by the FDA for pregnant women—would put a 125-pound woman over the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe" mercury threshold by more than two ounces.

Canned light tuna is thought to offer a lower mercury tuna option, but 20 percent of the FDA's samples of it contained almost double the average level of mercury that it's supposed to. Some samples had more mercury than the king mackerel—one of the FDA's top four high-in-mercury fish—which the agency advises pregnant women and children to avoid. Canned tuna constitutes the second most frequently consumed seafood product in the United States.

Some experts like Deborah Rice, a former senior risk assessor for the EPA, think that research since 2001 suggests that there is "no question" that the FDA and EPA's current limit for mercury consumption is "too high," she told Consumer Reports. The magazine is urging the FDA and EPA to recommend that pregnant women avoid eating any tuna—and to provide more safety information concerning tuna for pregnant women, children and people who eat a lot of fish (24 ounces of fish, around seven servings, or more per week).

Pope Francis Backs Military Force Against Extremists in Iraq, Calls for UN Involvement

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:06 PM EDT

President Obama's recent decision to use force against Islamic extremists in Iraq has drawn some unexpected support. The AP reported Monday that Pope Francis told reporters in response to questions about the US military intervention that "in these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor."

But Francis stopped short of endorsing specific military actions. "I underscore the verb 'stop,'" he added, according to the AP. "I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated." And he made clear that he wanted the international community—not just the United States—to decide how to combat the violence in Iraq:

"One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor," he said, apparently referring to the United States. "After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It's there that you must discuss 'Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?' Just this. Nothing more."

Two weeks ago, Obama ordered air strikes against the Islamic State—a terrorist group that now controls parts of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—which at the time was threatening to seize control of of Irbil, the Kurdish capital. The group has waged a violent campaign against Iraqi religious minorities, stranding tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi sect in the mountains near Irbil without food or water. On August 8, the Islamic State seized the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, forcing thousands of Christians to flee, convert, pay a fine, or be murdered "by the sword," according to CNN. Many Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, a branch of Catholicism.

The Vatican's support for the US intervention, which includes strikes by drones and piloted US fighter jets as well as humanitarian aid for the Yazidis, seems to be somewhat unusual. Just last September, Francis held a massive vigil urging the United States to refrain from engaging militarily in the conflict in Syria following massive chemical weapons attacks, which killed more than 1,300 people. Francis described war in 2013 as a "defeat for humanity," echoing the words of Pope John Paul II. In 2003, the Vatican condemned the US invasion of Iraq as a "crime against peace."

But, as the AP points out, "The Vatican has been increasingly showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being directly targeted because of their faith."

This article has been revised.

Humans Have Tripled Mercury in the Oceans

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

On Thursday, researchers released the first comprehensive study of mercury in the world's oceans over time according to depth. Their finding: Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and some mining activities have resulted in a more than three times increase in mercury in the upper 100 meters (about 330 feet) of the ocean. There, it builds up in carnivorous species like tuna—a food staple in the US that health experts have been concerned about for years because of its high mercury levels. Much of the 290 million moles (a unit of measure for chemical substances) of mercury in the ocean right now is concentrated in the North Atlantic.

Humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." 

A neurotoxin, mercury is especially dangerous for children and babies: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that exposure to it can lead to "poor mental development, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness." In adults, mercury poising can lead to problems with blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in fingers and toes, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if that wasn't scary enough, it's invisible, odorless, and hiding in fish meat.

The researchers say that the increase in mercury levels is starting to overcome the natural ocean circulation patterns. Typically, the coldest, saltiest water in the world's oceans naturally sinks and brings much of the mercury along with it, offering shelter to marine life from the chemicals. But now, because of the sheer volume of the stuff, the circulation of water can no longer keep mercury out of shallower depths. According to co-author Carl Lamborg, humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." According to David Krebbenhoft, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey, these shifts are directly correlated to the increase in mercury outputs over time.

The good news: If we can curb power plant mercury emissions and buy more products with reduced mercury, we can expect to see ocean mercury levels drop in the future. Says Krebbenhoft, "It's cause for optimism and should make us excited to do something about it because we may actually have an impact."