Study Records Elevated Mercury Levels in Fish Consumers

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 28 Oct 2002
Time: 14:47:14
Remote Name:


Date: 021019
By Sharon L. Crenson, AP National Writer, October 19, 2002

Burlington, Vt. - A small study of Californians who loaded their lunch and dinner menus with fish shows 89 percent wound up with elevated mercury levels in their bodies. The research, presented by San Francisco internist Dr. Jane Hightower at a symposium of environmental health experts in Vermont, is one of the first studies to document mercury levels in Americans who eat more fish than the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. It's a group some doctors are increasingly interested in as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration try to better inform the public about possible risks of eating too much mercury-tainted fish.

The problem is a thorny one because fish is widely recognized as a high quality protein source loaded with heart- protecting Omega 3 fatty acids. "We are not talking about whether or not to eat fish," said EPA's Kathryn Mahaffey, on of the conference organizers. Dr. Hightower screened 720 patients from March 2000 to March 2001 and then tested the mercury levels of 123 patients who reported eating more than the two servings of fish a week EPA recommends. The tests showed that of 116 patients who had their blood tested, 89 percent showed mercury levels greater than the 5 parts per million recognized as safe by the National Academy of Sciences. Of that group, 63 people had blood mercury levels more than twice the recommended level and 19 showed blood mercury levels four times the level considered safe. Four people had mercury levels 10 times as high as the government recommends.

About 78 percent of patients reported eating canned tuna more than three times a month; 74 percent ate salmon more than four times a month; and 72 percent said they had swordfish more than once a month. Other fish commonly eaten by the patients included halibut, ahi, sea bass and sushi. The patients included 93 females and 30 males. The peer-reviewed study is slated for publication Nov. 1 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The findings didn't seem to worry conference participants too much, however: The majority ordered salmon for dinner. The California study monitored 67 patients over time as they reduced their fish intake and subsequently their bodies' mercury levels. Within 41 weeks, all but two had reduced their blood mercury levels to below government-recommended thresholds, according to Hightower. The study did not address physical symptoms such as fatigue or memory loss associated with mercury poisoning. Many patients did report such problems, but Hightower's study did not seek to correlate symptoms with mercury levels.

Still, Alan Stern, a public health watchdog with the New Jersey state Department of Environmental Protection, said any mercury study able to zero-in on high-end fish consumers is a sort of "holy grail" for the field. Current government guidelines put fish consumption recommendations in terms of canned tuna servings because it's by far the most popular fish eaten by Americans. The FDA currently recommends that pregnant women and young children - by far the most mercury-vulnerable populations - limit their fish intake to two 6-ounce cans of tuna per week if it's the only fish they eat, and to one can per week if they also eat other fish. Hightower recommended that doctors concerned about patients' mercury exposure take dietary histories including fish consumption to help identify people at risk of accumulating too much mercury in their bodies. She also recommended that state and federal government agencies make the results of mercury testing in fish available wherever fish are sold, along with the details of consumption advisories.

The Vermont conference was organized by the American Fisheries Society and EPA. - - - On the Net: American Fisheries Society:

Environmental Protection Agency: * * * Copyright (c) 2002, The Associated Press

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