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January 20, 2012 > Being Safe With Sushi

Being Safe With Sushi

By Rithvik Baratam, Damanjit Heer, Devesh Kodnani, Shaurye Mahajan, Ansh Vidyarthi, and Alex Yem

Have you heard of First Lego League (FFL)? It is a competition in which kids build robots to solve themed missions and research a real world problem through teamwork. This year's FLL theme, "Food Factor," requires research of a food, its contamination risks and current solutions; then creating an innovative solution for the problem that could be even better! We are currently moving on to regional competition after doing well at the qualifier level. This competition has taught us a lot!

You've probably tried or heard of the Japanese dish, Sushi, known for it's health benefits and use of raw fish. Sushi is a great food with high levels of protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3, while maintaining a low level of fat... it's tasty too! Those are some of the reasons we chose sushi as our "Food Factor" food.

Sushi consists of cooked rice soaked in vinegar called Shari, seaweed called Nori, and other ingredients called Neta. The most common form of Neta is raw fish. Sushi is usually served with condiments such as soy sauce or wasabi. Sushi can be contaminated in the rice or fish. The fish in sushi can be contaminated with methylmercury, an organic form of mercury, toxaphene, an insecticide, PCBs, and other harmful substances such as bacteria. Most contamination is caused by ocean pollution and improper handling of raw fish. The rice in sushi can also be contaminated with bacteria such as Bacillus Cereus and other contaminants like pesticides.

To learn more about contaminants in sushi, we interviewed Ms. Chithra Malani, a registered nutritionist and dietician from Santa Clara. We also visited a local sushi restaurant and interviewed a sushi chef who told us about how he prepares food. We studied web pages, books, encyclopedias, charts, and other sources, narrowing our focus on contaminants to methylmercury, an organic form of mercury.

Mercury is an elemental metal that is liquid at room temperature. During mining, volcanic eruptions, industrial processes or any other place where there may be mercury deposits or products, the mercury can heat up, converting into a gaseous form, and escape into the atmosphere. It precipitates with the rain, and into the ocean. This mercury is absorbed by tiny organisms, such as algae and becomes methylmercury. As those tiny organisms are consumed by larger creatures and, in turn, by larger fish, levels of methylmercury increase; the largest fish eat those with the highest levels of mercury. Fishermen collect and sell these fish.

Why is mercury so bad? Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning brain poison. It can damage brain functions and the nervous system. People should avoid fish with high mercury content, especially pregnant or nursing mothers and small children; because the minds of young children have not fully developed and can be affected. Mercury can also cause harm to adults including loss of hearing, vision, and memory.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't eat Sushi; Sushi is great! You should just avoid fish with high mercury content, like bluefin tuna, shark, mackerel, and eel.

Some current solutions to avoid methylmercury poisoning is to eat farmed fish which avoids contaminants altogether, or, if you have already ingested the fish, gastric lavage. Gastric lavage is a process where food from the stomach is pumped out. This process only works if the food is freshly ingested.

If the mercury has already reached the bloodstream, you need to remove it by means of chelation before it affects your body. Chelation is a process in which doctors intravenously insert a chemical, either DMSA or EDTA into the bloodstream. The EDTA and DMSA chemically bond with mercury and other toxic metals. Then the chemical exits the body through the urine. Two problems with this solution are that the chemical can also bond with vital metals, so you have to take supplements, and that this process happens in a hospital and has to be repeated several times to remove all the mercury.

One part of our project was to come up with an innovative solution. Our solution is a pill that is half DMSA, half EDTA, and the center is iron and calcium. This pill is magnetically charged positive and bonds with metals, mostly mercury; because mercury is negatively charged. The iron-calcium core replenishes those metals and harmful mercury is removed from the body through the urine. This solution is better than chelation because it can be taken as a pill.

We shared our work and solution at restaurants, to our neighbors, to the community, at YMCA, on a website, at school, in this newspaper, and through brochures to people in our community. Please feel free to visit our website at

Let us know if we missed anything or if you would like to share something about sushi by email at Thank you Tri-City Voice for being kind enough to give us our own newspaper article and thanks to all who have contributed to or supported this team. Bon Appetit!

This article was written by a group of sixth grade students and friends from Gomes, and Chadbourne Elementary Schools in Fremont. The team is participating in a robotics competition organized by First Lego League (FLL). For this year's theme of "Keep the Food Safe," participants are required to program a robot to solve Food Safety missions, while doing research on a real-world problem. Students must present the research as well as an innovative solution. The team competed and won in East Bay Qualifier round of this competition on November 20, and has advanced to regional competition January 22, from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. at Newark Memorial High School in Newark. For more information, visit, or contact the team at

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