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Chelsea at Crunch Gym

Forty Weeks of Fitness!

Chelsea, our pregnancy fitness expert, is a certified personal trainer at Crunch gym in San Francisco, California. She gave birth to her daughter, Madeira Re, in July 2006. Read more

Mercury in Fish: Cause for Concern?

Swordfish and shark taste great--especially grilled or broiled. But reports that these and some other large predatory fish may contain methyl mercury levels in excess of the Food and Drug Administration's 1 part per million (ppm) limit has dampened some fish lovers' appetites.

FDA scientists responsible for seafood safety are also concerned about the safety of eating these types of fish, but they agree that the fish are safe, provided they're eaten infrequently (no more than once a week) as part of a balanced diet.

Mercury Is Everywhere

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment. According to FDA toxicologist Mike Bolger, Ph.D., approximately 2,700 to 6,000 tons of mercury are released annually into the atmosphere naturally by degassing from the Earth's crust and oceans. Another 2,000 to 3,000 tons are released annually into the atmosphere by human activities, primarily from burning household and industrial wastes, and especially from fossil fuels such as coal.

Mercury vapor is easily transported in the atmosphere, deposited on land and water, and then, in part, released again to the atmosphere. Trace amounts of mercury are soluble in bodies of water, where bacteria can cause chemical changes that transform mercury to methyl mercury, a more toxic form.

Fish absorb methyl mercury from water as it passes over their gills and as they feed on aquatic organisms. Larger predator fish are exposed to higher levels of methyl mercury from their prey.

Methyl mercury binds tightly to the proteins in fish tissue, including muscle. Cooking does not appreciably reduce the methyl mercury content of the fish.

Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methyl mercury, some more than others. In areas where there is industrial mercury pollution, the levels in the fish can be quite elevated. In general, however, methyl mercury levels for most fish range from less than 0.01 ppm to 0.5 ppm. It's only in a few species of fish that methyl mercury levels reach FDA limit for human consumption of 1 ppm. This most frequently occurs in some large predator fish, such as shark and swordfish. Certain species of very large tuna, typically sold as fresh steaks for sushi, can have levels over 1 ppm. (Canned tuna, composed of smaller species of tuna such as skipjack and albacore, have much lower levels of methyl mercury, averaging only about 0.17 ppm.) The average concentration of methyl mercury for commercially important species (mostly marine in origin) is less than 0.3 ppm.

FDA works with state regulators when commercial fish, caught and sold locally, are found to contain methyl mercury levels exceeding 1 ppm. The agency also checks imported fish at ports and refuses entry if methyl mercury levels exceed the FDA limit.

Spot-caught predator fresh-water species like pike and walleye sometimes have methyl mercury levels in the 1 ppm range. Other fresh-water species also have elevated levels, particularly in areas where mercury levels in the local environment are elevated.

FDA suggests sports fishers check with state or local governments for advisories about water bodies or fish species. These advisories provide up-to-date public health information on local areas and warn of areas or species where mercury (or other contamination) is of concern.

Next: Mercury Safety Studies


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