EPA offers advice on Mercury in freshwater fish for women and young children

The Environmental Protection Agency recently released advice on how women of childbearing age and young children can reduce their risk of mercury poisoning from locally caught fish.

Jan. 17, 2001—The Environmental Protection Agency recently released advice on how women of childbearing age and young children can reduce their risk of mercury poisoning from locally caught fish.

Fish can be an important source of nutrition. However, some fish contain harmful levels of the pollutant mercury. Mercury consumed by a pregnant or nursing woman or by a young child can harm the developing brain and nervous system.

Most mercury pollution is released into the air. It falls down directly onto waterways or is deposited on land where it can be washed into the water. Bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform mercury into a highly toxic form - methylmercury. Methylmercury accumulates in fish, with larger fish generally accumulating higher levels of methylmercury. The Environmental Protection Agency and States are working to reduce mercury pollution in the environment but because methylmercury is very persistent, it will be many years before methylmercury levels in fish are reduced.

Women that are pregnant or could become pregnant, are nursing a baby, or feeding a young child, should limit consumption of fish caught by family and friends to one meal per week.

For adults one meal is six ounces of cooked fish or eight ounces uncooked fish; for a young child one meal is two ounces cooked fish or three ounces uncooked fish. Many states collect data on mercury levels in fish from local waters.

State or local health departments will have specific advice on local waters. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued advice on mercury in fish bought from stores and restaurants. FDA advises that women who are or may become pregnant, nursing women and young children not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.

FDA also advises that women who are or may become pregnant may eat an average of 12 ounces of all other fish from stores and restaurants each week.

This is important to keep the total level of methylmercury contributed by all fish at a low level in your body.

Fish is a good source of protein and adequate protein is necessary for a baby and child's healthy development.

This national advice is for nursing mothers, women who are or could become pregnant, and young children. The developing nervous system of the baby and young child is more sensitive to the harmful effects of methylmercury than the more fully developed nervous system of an older child or adult. Other family members do not need to follow this advice but should follow the recommendations of the State or local health department on the amount of fish caught by family and friends that is safe to eat.

For FDA's advice on mercury in fish from stores and restaurants, go to www.cfsan.fda.gov.

For more information on freshwater fish consumption advisories across the country, go to www.epa.gov/ost/fish/.

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