Mercury in Seafood

Why is mercury a problem?
Mercury has been linked to cognitive and physical disabilities. The main concern is that mercury can block the development of nerve cells in the brain—which puts developing infants and young children in the high-risk group for mercury consumption. Pregnant and nursing women, as well as women who are thinking of becoming pregnant, are also placed in this high-risk category because the mercury that accumulates in the bloodstream is passed along to a developing fetus and nursing baby. While studies have focused primarily on the dangers of mercury to babies and young children, high levels can also have detrimental neurological and cardiovascular effects on adolescents and adults.

What's being done about mercury in fish?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates fish and seafood that's sold in the U.S. and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors mercury in the environment and released by industry. In recent years, the FDA and the EPA have stated that while fish still has an important place in a healthful diet, young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age should avoid consuming fish that are high in mercury. The FDA also advises that this high-risk group to limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces (about two meals) per week; the EPA recommends 8 ounces (one meal) per week, and 3 ounces per week for young children and 8 ounces (one meal) per week for the rest of the high-risk group.

Other organizations are working to help consumers evaluate the role of fish in their diets. In a 2006 report titled "Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks," for example, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that fish is high in nutritional quality and excellent for coronary heart health. The group states that children (up to age 12), pregnant women or women who may become pregnant, as well as women who are nursing, will benefit from eating seafood. They suggest that this high-risk group avoid fish that is high in mercury, but otherwise consume about 6 ounces (and up to 12 ounces) of fish per week. For adolescents and adults who are not in the high-risk category, they recommend up to 6 ounces per week (two 3-ounce servings) of fish. For those who eat more than two servings per week, they suggest choosing from a variety of seafood, to insure that they not consume primarily one type of fish that may be high in mercury. They also recommend increased governmental monitoring of seafood for contamination.

To help at the food counter, consumer groups advocate the labeling of all fish and shellfish products (these standardized labels would identify which choices are higher in mercury) and posting advisories (to alert those at high-risk) at fish counters. Some stores voluntarily post signs, but the government requires no mandatory signage or labeling at this time. It's up to you to ask questions and make your own recommendations—for adequate information for all consumers.