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Mercury in Seafood

U.S. Fish Advice May Expose Babies to Too Much Mercury

March 16, 2016

Mercury in Seafood: Who's at risk for mercury exposure?

Between the draft FDA and EPA recommendation for pregnant women, and the Dietary The guidelines from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, show federal nutrition advice has clearly shifted toward increased seafood consumption. But the government is ignoring its own research that increasing seafood consumption also increases mercury risks.28 More than a dozen recent studies highlight specific groups at greater risk for mercury exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly monitor mercury exposure for the American public. One CDC study found that one-fourth of women eating seafood two or more times per week had mercury concentrations in their blood above 3.5 micrograms per liter – a level that, if they were pregnant, would expose their developing fetus to too much mercury.29

Another analysis of CDC data found the highest levels of mercury in women in coastal regions of the U.S.30, a finding confirmed by studies in Hawaii31, Florida32, Louisiana,33 Alaska34 and New York City.35 Residents of the Great Lakes region also have high mercury levels.36

CDC data also suggests that Americans of Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander or Caribbean ancestry have higher levels of mercury than whites, African Americans and Latinos,37 largely because they eat more fish.38 This finding is affirmed by studies of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans living in Washington state,39 Asian Americans in Chicago and New York City, 40,41 and Native Americans following a subsistence diet in Washington state.42

People who eat fish caught in polluted waterways are also at greater risk for mercury exposure.43 More affluent people are at increased risk,44 perhaps because they eat more expensive fish species, which tend to have more mercury because they are larger and more likely to be high in the food chain. Studies find elevated mercury exposure for people who eat a lot of sushi,45 and other predatory ocean fish like swordfish, marlin, shark or tuna.46

The number and diversity of Americans who are at higher risk of mercury exposure makes it imperative that federal, state, local and tribal health officials help identify women at high risk and provide language- and culture-appropriate messages about seafood safety.