Mercury vs. Arsenic

During afternoon classes today, a coworker of mine who is a fish-eating vegetarian began telling me why I shouldn’t eat chicken. A student had started teasing her for not eating meat and as a means of redirecting I asked the woman why she had chosen to become a vegetarian.

“Well,” she said, “my ex-husband had a spiritual leader in India who told him that when he eats meat he is also inheriting the soul of the animal at the time of slaughter. After that, it was ruined for me.”

“So, he didn’t eat meat for religious reasons,” I said, trying to interpret for the student who had since acquired a puzzled look.


“But you eat fish, right?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “I eat salmon once a week for the omega 3’s.”

“I don’t eat fish,” I replied. I haven’t since I was old enough to protest. “I don’t like the taste or smell of it in addition to the fact that the oceans are over fished and then there’s the mercury to worry about.” (I’ve become defensive from my years of being anti-fish).

“Well, chicken has arsenic in it,” she exclaimed, as I swallowed the last of my drumstick from lunch.

Mercury versus Arsenic. What a competition.

So after my coworker told me to look it up and I said I would, we both backed away into our separate corners. And I did look it up.

It turns out that there is a trace amount of arsenic in chicken. In a recent study of chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken they found 2 parts per billion of arsenic. (New York Times article). I suppose she was right.

But so was I. A simple google search of mercury and fish will turn up a staggering 14,300,000 results. And the kind of fish she consumes weekly, farmed salmon, is especially toxic. The recommended allowance is a mere one time per month versus four to eight times per month of wild salmon. (Washington Post article)

So, I suppose we both lost the fight of mercury versus arsenic. But I have to say, in addition to gloating a little I can’t help but feel a little more safe.

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