U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Study: Mercury Levels in Women of Childbearing Age Drop 34 Percent

November 20, 2013

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Study: Mercury Levels in Women of Childbearing Age Drop 34 Percent

WASHINGTON — Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study using data collected by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that blood mercury levels in women of childbearing age dropped 34 percent from a survey conducted in 1999-2000 to follow-up
surveys conducted from 2001 to 2010. Additionally, the percentage of women of childbearing age with blood mercury levels above the level of concern decreased 65 percent from the 1999-2000 survey and the follow-up surveys from 2001-2010.

During the survey period there was very little change in the amount of fish consumed. The decrease in the ratio of mercury intake to fish consumed suggests that women may have shifted are shifting to eating types of fish with lower mercury concentrations.

For the peer-reviewed study, Trends in Blood Mercury Concentrations and Fish Consumption among U.S. Women of Childbearing Age, NHANES (1999-2010), the EPA analyzed measurements of blood mercury levels from CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The EPA found that blood
methylmercury concentrations in women of childbearing age in the first survey cycle (1999-2000) were 1.5 times higher than the average concentration of the five subsequent cycles (2001-2010). The average of blood mercury concentrations changed only slightly from 2001 to 2010, and remained below levels of concern for health.

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet because they are a source of high- quality protein, many vitamins and minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and are mostly low in saturated fat. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can be beneficial for heart health and children's proper growth and development.

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish. The EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and to eat fish and shellfish that are low in mercury for the health benefits and to reduce exposure to mercury.

EPA and FDA advice for fish consumption:

- Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because they have high levels of mercury.
- Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) per week of a variety of fish and shellfish low in mercury.
- Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, and catfish.
- Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
- Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught in local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish caught from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.
- Follow these same recommendations for young children, but serve smaller portions.

The EPA and the FDA issued national mercury advisories on fish consumption in 2001 and 2004. The agency conducted an extensive national outreach campaign, including distributing millions of advisory brochures; translating information into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean,
Cambodian and Hmong; and providing materials to more than 150,000 doctors and healthcare professionals. The EPA has also worked closely with state and tribal partners on developing and communicating risk and benefit messages related to consuming fish.

In 2013 the EPA took two significant actions toward making fish and shellfish safer to eat. In June, the agency proposed new effluent guidelines for steam electric power plants, which currently account for more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged into streams, rivers and lakes from industrial facilities in the U.S. In April, the EPA issued the new Mercury and Air Toxics rule, which sets emissions limitation standards for mercury emitted from power plants. Compliance with this rule may take up to four years.

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Stacy Kika (News media only)