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Government Seafood Consumption Advice Could Expose 1 In 4 Newborns to Elevated Mercury Levels

For Immediate Release: 
Friday, April 13, 2001

WASHINGTON - Government recommendations for fish consumption could expose more than one in four expectant mothers - 1 million women - to enough mercury to put the health of their fetuses at risk, according to a new computer investigation released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). "Brain Food: What Women Should Know About Mercury Contamination of Fish," examines widespread mercury contamination in fish species caught and sold commercially.

To protect public health the report recommends that pregnant women not eat any quantity of 13 types of fish, and strictly limit consumption of 10 others, including canned tuna. The report also asks government health authorities to test and track mercury levels in pregnant women - and to expand education for pregnant women about the hazards of mercury and how they can reduce their exposure.

"The government's recommendations are not grounded in reality. For example, they say the average woman can safely eat the equivalent of 76 cans of tuna during her pregnancy. In the real world, eating more than about one can of tuna a month during pregnancy is risky," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's Research Director.

"Women are faced with an unacceptable trade-off -- fish are a rich source of protein during pregnancy, but mercury pollution has made many types of fish a considerable health risk to their babies," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Our government agencies are not only failing to provide adequately protective warnings to expectant mothers, but are failing even to track human exposure to mercury and the developmental and learning problems that it causes."

Mercury is toxic to the developing fetal brain, and exposure in the womb can cause learning deficiencies and can delay mental development in children. A committee of the National Academy of Sciences recommended last year that U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tighten its safety standards for mercury in fish. To date, the FDA has refused to adopt the panel's recommendations.

The analysis released today accounts for the real differences among American women and their risks from mercury exposure, rather than relying on a hypothetical "average." The information on mercury in people was combined with a one-of-a-kind EWG database on fish that contains 56,000 records of mercury test results in fish from seven different government sources. The EWG/PIRG report also reviews state governments' mercury advisories and finds that while some states are better than others, virtually none provides thorough protection for pregnant women.

FDA advises pregnant women and women considering pregnancy to eat 12 ounces of fish per week and to entirely avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel. However, this advice is based on calculations intended to protect a 150-pound man. Half of American women weigh less than that and a developing fetus is much more sensitive to the health impacts of mercury than a grown man.

The FDA recommendation also does not account for the mercury already present in a woman's body before she becomes pregnant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported 10% of American women of childbearing age - some 7 million women - already have mercury in their blood at levels that the National Academy of Sciences considers potentially unsafe for the developing fetus. CDC's findings were issued two months after FDA's latest fish standards were announced.

On March 30, the state of South Carolina recommended that pregnant women in the state not eat any mercury-contaminated fish. Last year, Massachusetts issued similar advice, recommending that pregnant women not eat any fish from state waters due to mercury contamination.

The groups are urging the EPA to crack down on the main culprit for mercury contamination, coal-burning power plants. Mercury emissions from these plants are currently completely unregulated. There is also no comprehensive program for tracking mercury exposure and related health conditions. Federal decision makers should require power plants to reduce their mercury pollution by 90% and ultimately move away from polluting sources of power altogether. In addition, a nationwide environmental health tracking network would be a critical step in assessing the impact of mercury contamination on human health.

According to the data analysis in "Brain Food":

  • Pregnant women, nursing mothers and all women of childbearing age, should not eat tuna steaks, sea bass, oysters from the Gulf Coast, marlin, halibut, pike, walleye, white croaker, and largemouth bass. These are in addition to FDA's recommendation to entirely avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.
  • These women should eat no more than one meal per month combined of canned tuna, mahi-mahi, blue mussel, Eastern oyster, cod, pollock, salmon from the Great Lakes, blue crab from the Gulf of Mexico, wild channel catfish and lake whitefish.
  • The following fish are safer choices for avoiding mercury exposure: farmed trout or catfish, shrimp, fish sticks, flounder, wild Pacific salmon, croaker, haddock, and blue crab from the mid-Atlantic.