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FDA ANNOUNCES ADVISORY
ON METHYL MERCURY IN FISH

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is announcing its advice to pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant on the hazard of consuming certain kinds of fish that may contain high levels of methyl mercury. The FDA is advising these women not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. As a matter of prudent public health advice, the FDA is also recommending that nursing mothers and young children not eat these fish as well.

Fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish contain high levels of a form of mercury called methyl mercury that may harm an unborn baby's developing nervous system. These long-lived, larger fish that feed on smaller fish accumulate the highest levels of methyl mercury and therefore pose the greatest risk to the unborn child. Mercury can occur naturally in the environment and it can be released into the air through industrial pollution and can get into both fresh and salt water.

The FDA advisory acknowledges that seafood can be an important part of a balanced diet for pregnant women and those of childbearing age who may become pregnant. FDA advises these women to select a variety of other kinds of fish -- including shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish or farm-raised fish -- and that these women can safely eat 12 ounces per week of cooked fish. A typical serving size of fish is from 3 to 6 ounces.

The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition will launch a comprehensive education program to reach pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant and their health care providers concerning the hazard posed by methyl mercury to the unborn child. As one of its priorities for fiscal year 2001, the Center will also develop our overall public health strategy for future regulation of methyl mercury in commercial seafood.

Today, EPA is also issuing advice on possible mercury contamination to women and children eating fish caught by family and friends (non-commercial fish). EPA particularly recommends that consumers check with their state or local health department for any additional advice on the safety of fish from nearby waters. Additional information is available on EPA's Web site at: http://www.epa.gov/ost/fish.


United States
Environmental Protection
Agency
Office of Water
4301
EPA-823-F-01-004

National Advice on Mercury in Fish Caught by Family and Friends: For Women Who Are Pregnant or May Become Pregnant, Nursing Mothers, and Young Children

Summary

EPA is issuing a national advisory concerning risks associated with mercury in freshwater fish caught by friends and family. The groups most vulnerable to the effects of mercury pollution include: women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children. To protect against the risks of mercury in fish caught in freshwaters, EPA is recommending that these groups limit fish consumption to one meal per week for adults (6 ounces of cooked fish, 8 ounces uncooked fish) and one meal per week for young children (2 ounces cooked fish or 3 ounces uncooked fish).

Background

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment and in plants and animals. Most mercury pollution is released into the air and then falls directly onto waterways or is deposited onto land where it can be washed into the water. Mercury concentrations in air are usually low and of little direct concern. But when mercury enters the water, biological processes transform it into a highly toxic form - methylmercury. Methylmercury accumulates in fish, with larger fish generally accumulating higher levels of methylmercury.

Freshwater fish from contaminated waters have been shown to have particularly high levels of methylmercury, posing potential risks for recreational anglers and people who regularly fish for food. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences confirms that methylmercury is a potent toxin and concludes that the babies of women who consume large amounts of fish when pregnant are at greater risk for changes in their nervous system that can affect their ability to learn. EPA and the 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 and the environment are reduced.

Is it safe to eat fish?

Fish is an excellent source of nutrition and most people have no reason to limit their fish consumption. Because the developing nervous system of a baby and young child is more sensitive to methylmercury’s harmful effects than the more fully developed nervous system of an older child or adult, EPA is recommending that women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children limit their consumption of fish caught by family and friends to one meal per week (six ounces cooked fish or eight ounces uncooked fish per adult; two ounces cooked fish or three ounces uncooked fish per young child). Other family members do not need to follow this advice, but should follow recommendations of their state or local health department on the amount of fish caught by friends and family that is safe to eat.

Why is EPA issuing national fish consumption advice?

EPA is issuing this advice for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children to raise awareness of the potential harm that high levels of methylmercury in fish can cause to a baby or child’s developing brain and nervous system. This advice provides guidance on the amount of fish caught by friends and family that these groups can eat to keep methylmercury from reaching harmful levels.

Does this advice cover fish from stores and restaurants?

EPA's advice only covers freshwater fish caught by friends and family from local waters. The Food & Drug Administration is issuing a companion methylmercury advisory on the hazard posed by certain coastal and ocean fish and fish purchased in stores and restaurants. For more information on mercury in these fish, please contact the Food and Drug Administration or visit their web site at www.cfsan.fda.gov on the Internet.

How is this national advice different from current advice on consumption of freshwater fish?

For years many state and local agencies have monitored their waters and issued advice to limit or avoid certain fish due to high levels of methylmercury or other pollutants. This national advice applies in all states and territories and applies only to women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children. Because some local waters may have very high levels of mercury, check with your state and local health department to see if they recommend eating even less freshwater fish than this national advice.

Where can I get more information?

To get more information on EPA's fish advisory program, visit EPA's fish advisory web site at www.epa.gov/ost/fish or

Written by: EPA


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