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Mercury levels in fish a concern for at-risk groups

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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The federal government advises eating fish but in limited amounts if you're pregnant, nursing, a woman who might become pregnant or a young child. That's because methylmercury, an industrial pollutant from coal-burning power plants and other sources, turns up in fish and can harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system and brain.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age had unsafe mercury levels in their blood. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated this year that 630,000 U.S. infants are born each year at risk of lowered intelligence and learning problems because of exposure to mercury from food their mothers consumed.

But fish can also boost growth and brain development and improve heart health if eaten in the right amount, so the government recommends eating it --- just watching the quantity if you're in this group.

Government advice on seafood consumption, especially for canned albacore tuna, which is higher in mercury than light tuna, continues to be controversial. Some consumer and environmental advocacy groups say the federal recommendations don't go far enough to protect the health of women and children.

Here is advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA for how much canned tuna is safe to eat, and from one advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group. > Light tuna: Eat up to 12 ounces a week of seafood that is low in mercury (that's two average meals). Canned light tuna, with a mercury content of .12 parts per million, falls into this group. The government advises feeding less than 12 ounces weekly to young children, but does not give a suggested amount. > Albacore: Eat no more than 6 ounces a week of albacore tuna (also called white tuna), which has an average mercury content of .35 ppm. That's one average meal, about the size of one can of albacore. That 6 ounces can be part of the total 12-ounce weekly allowance. Young children should eat less than 6 ounces weekly of fish higher in mercury, such as canned albacore tuna. The government doesn't give a suggested amount.

The Environmental Working Group recommends that pregnant women and children younger than 5 eat no albacore tuna because some cans of albacore contain much higher levels than the .35 ppm average.

The FDA's limit on allowable mercury in seafood is 1 part per million. It recommends that pregnant women, those who might become pregnant, nursing mothers and children avoid eating fish near that limit, such as swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark.

For the government advisory, go to

For recommendations from the Environmental Working Group, which bases its tuna consumption advice on weight, go to

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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