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Back To Vidyya EPA Fact Sheet:

National Advice On Mercury In Fish Caught By Family And Friends

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 (NAS, Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury, July 2000) 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 commercial fish purchased in stores and restaurants. For more information on mercury in commercial 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 contact Jeff Bigler at 202-260-1305; e-mail: bigler.jeff@epa.gov.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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