Consuming Mercury Contaminated Fish Linked to Fetal Brain Damage

Important Warnings for Pregnant Women and Children:

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 1 in 6 pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose health risks to her developing baby. This exposure to mercury in the womb puts over 600,000 babies each year at risk for birth defects or learning disabilities. The findings are based on a new understanding that the umbilical cord blood has 1.7 times more mercury than mother’s blood. If a pregnant woman eats fish contaminated with even small amounts of mercury she risks damaging her fetus’ brain. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to methylmercury because of their rapid brain development - some may currently be receiving exposures at levels that cause observable adverse neurological effects.

Mercury poisoning in fish is of particular concern because fish accumulate the methylmercury in their tissue where it becomes strongly bonded. Long-lived larger fish that feed on other fish accumulate the highest levels of methylmercury and pose the greatest risk to people who eat them regularly. Methylmercury is not removed from fish tissues by any practical cooking method.

Limiting Intake of Tuna and Other Fish

The American Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency cautions women of childbearing age, as well as young children, to limit mercury intake by eating no more than six ounces of albacore tuna a week. In canned tuna, Albacore is referred to as “white” tuna.

Some scientists believe, however, that the mercury levels are so high, that albacore tuna should not be eaten at all.

The FDA also warns pregnant women against eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because of the high levels of mercury. The government is also advising consumers to mix the types of fish they eat and not to eat any one kind of fish or shellfish more than once a week

David Acheson, the FDA’s medical officer in charge of the issue, said it is implicit that women at risk should eat no more than four to six ounces of tuna once a week.

Women between 18 and 54 typically make 85 percent of tuna purchases at supermarkets, according to industry figures. More than 80 percent of all tuna sold is used at lunch in various salads.

The FDA and EPA also advise that women check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat only up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish caught from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Parents should follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to young child, but serve smaller portions.