With all the fire danger signs to be seen outside of the valley, there’s one notice that’s yet to appear—the “Caution: Tuna” warning. But Lance Olsen, a former professor of psychology at the College of Great Falls (now the University of Great Falls) believes that tuna, when combined with the smoke from forests fires, could pose a major health risk.

What do tuna fish and forest fire smoke have to do with each other, you ask?

Answer: Mercury.

Because mercury is commonly found in rocks and soil, it makes its way into trees. When trees burn, it makes its way into the air via smoke. This is bad news for homo sapiens.

“Mercury has been a known insult to the brain and the nervous system for a long time,” Olson says.

Tuna companies have warned pregnant mothers not to eat their fish for some time, due to mercury levels that can cause defects in a child’s nervous system. Now, however, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have found that mercury may be harmful for adults as well. The study found that the higher the level of mercury found in people’s hair, the more their memory and motor skills were impaired.

The reason tuna and other predatory fish contain high mercury levels is what Olson refers to as “bio-accumulation.” In other words, mercury from the air falls onto plants, which are eaten by microscopic life forms, which are eaten in turn by small fish. Then tuna and bigger fish eat them. At each level of this “mercury circle of life,” the levels rise.

If mercury builds up in the human body faster than the body can get rid of it, central nervous damage will occur, Olson says.

With current levels of smoke in the air being what they are, Missoulians are probably breathing in their fair share of mercury these days. Olson has decided not to add to that level; he’s abstaining from tuna.

“I’ve cut it back to nothing,” he says. “And I love salmon. But I had to quit that, too.”


When the Missoulian declared Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt “A fine fit for EPA” in a recent editorial, the paper endorsed a Republican known to exact revenge on environmental professionals with whom he has a personal beef. President Bush has nominated Leavitt to replace the fleeing Christine Todd Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And from this lofty post, there’s no telling how many personal scores Leavitt may choose to settle. After becoming governor in 1992, Leavitt fired 75 employees of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The bloodletting was perceived as payback for a $25,000 fine the DWR had levied upon the Leavitt family trout hatchery. Seems the Leavitts had been caught illegally transferring whirling disease-infected fish. Once in office, Leavitt not only pushed 75 dedicated fisheries professionals into a mass grave, he also removed hatchery oversight from DWR. In place of true scientific regulation, Leavitt created the Aquaculture Advisory Committee and stocked it with hatchery owners who were asked to regulate themselves. They happily agreed, and if Leavitt applies this same tactic as head of the EPA, expect an equally joyous response from coal, coalbed methane, oil, gas and any number of polluting foxes itching for a key to the henhouse.

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