Federal seafood advice leaves some women full of mercury: Study

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By Brian Bienkowski for Environmental Health News:

For years seafood was Karen Grote’s “go to” when eating out—ordering tuna, shrimp and lobster.

“I travel a lot for work, so was constantly eating out,” said the 34-year old actuary from the Philadelphia area.

But her choices changed after Grote had her hair tested for mercury as part of a study and her levels were elevated. Now pregnant, she still eats some seafood but is limiting how much to avoid harming her unborn child with the neurotoxic chemical.

“It was completely eye opening for me,” Grote said.

After the testing of Grote and other women across the country, an environmental group warns that eating federally recommended seafood amounts may leave women with too much mercury and not enough omega-3s.

The report, released today by the Environmental Working Group, found that the majority of mercury in 254 women of childbearing age from 40 states came from fish the government does not warn pregnant women to avoid, such as tuna steaks and tuna sushi. Only about 17 percent of the women’s mercury load came from species the agencies warn about.

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And, though the women sampled ate more seafood than an average U.S. woman, about 60 percent still didn’t have the recommended amount of omega-3s for a pregnant woman.

“If you get a little bit of mercury it can be offset by the omega–3s. But that means you don’t get the full benefit of the omega–3s and other nutrients in seafood,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, in a statement.

Medical professionals and officials have long struggled with balancing seafood recommendations for women who are, or might get pregnant. Fish are the major source of people’s exposure to mercury, which can harm developing brains and reduce IQs.

But research has also shown that eating fish provides vital nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids and protein, for fetal brain growth, and that children’s IQs increased when their mothers had eaten low-mercury fish.

The report comes a year and a half after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration made major changes to their seafood consumption advice: recommending consumption of at least 8 ounces of low-mercury fish per week.

The changes marked the first time the EPA and FDA recommended a minimum amount of fish that pregnant women and children should eat.

Michael Bender, executive director of the Mercury Policy Project, said the agencies’ changes to seafood advice fall “way short” in protecting fish eaters.

“We’re always hearing from federal agencies how we should follow the latest science, this advisory was the complete opposite,” said Bender, whose organization partnered with the Environmental Working Group on the recent study.

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, led the study and said the main point is dietary guidance needs to be more specific. “The FDA for a long time said too many details could be overwhelming,” she said. “We’re in the information age … there are really savvy, informed consumers out there.”

Tuna seems to be a problem. Lunder pointed out that in their study about 40 percent of the mercury was coming from eating various forms of it—canned tuna, tuna steaks, tuna sushi.

“The FDA for a long time said too many details could be overwhelming. We’re in the information age … there are really savvy, informed consumers out there.”-Sonya Lunder, Environmental Working GroupThe FDA warns pregnant or breastfeeding women to eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna a week, but does not warn about other types of tuna.

The advisory “fails to recognize tuna steaks, tuna sushi, and also light canned tuna … this is clearly not a low mercury fish,” Bender said. Lunder added that tuna warnings are especially important, as it’s a common fish that some people eat daily.

Lauren Sucher, a spokesperson at the FDA, wouldn’t comment on the new study but said the agency is revising the 2014 draft advice, adding that they’ve received more than 200 public comments.

The study confirmed that seafood is the major route of mercury exposure for people: Mercury levels were 11 times higher in those who frequently ate fish compared to those who rarely ate it.

Perhaps most concerning: about 29 percent of the women (all of childbearing age) had mercury levels above 1 part per million, which is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

Bender called the 1 part per million level, “clearly outdated and very weak.” Many health researchers, including Grandjean, say that 1 part per million is too high, and that about .58 parts per million is a more protective upper limit for pregnant women. Sixty-percent of those sampled exceeded that limit.

Grote said she’s still eating some seafood, but has completely cut out tuna. She’s trying to include more low mercury options, such as salmon. The new Dietary Guidelines released earlier this year by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture list salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, Pacific oysters and trout as fish high in omega-3s and low in mercury.

“I was a bit ignorant to the risks of mercury,” Grote said. “I always viewed seafood as healthy.”

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.


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