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8% of Newborns Near Lake Superior Have Unsafe Mercury Levels

There is nothing more pure than a newborn child, or is there? Sadly, this pureness is tainted with chemicals from our environment. The uterus does not protect newborns from such exposure.  Furthermore, this critical time of development is when such toxic contaminations have the greatest effect on human health.

A new study has found mercury in newborns born in the states surrounding Lake Superior that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards. The midwestern mothers’ diet of fish is to blame.

EcoWatch explains:

Even small amounts of mercury can hurt infants’ developing brain and nervous system.

Babies born in warm months were more likely to have higher levels, which, when coupled with the methymercury findings, suggest that fish consumption is the culprit.

Mercury can easily pass from a mother to her unborn child through the placenta.

The study is the first to look at mercury in newborns, so it’s hard to tell whether these levels are similar to those of general population.

Newborns that tested above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established mercury limits were broken down by state:

  • No Michigan newborns
  • 3 percent of Wisconsin newborns
  • 10 percent of Minnesota newborns

Minnesotans report eating more locally caught fish, which could explain this discrepancy.

1,465 babies were tested in the three states as part of standard newborn screenings.  Eight percent of the tested babies had higher than recommended levels of methylmercury in their blood. This form of mercury is found in fish and crosses through the placenta to the fetus when a pregnant mother consumes it.

The Minnesota Department of Health concludes from the study:

MDH has been sharing specialized fish consumption information with women and their health care providers. Even so, the study results show that pregnant women and those planning pregnancy need more information on how to select fish low in mercury. As a result of the study, MDH is strengthening outreach and communication efforts to health care providers and others, to ensure that the public has information that promotes eating fish low in mercury.

The EPA recommends:

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 in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

By following these three recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower 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 your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.

Unfortunately, the Lake Superior study did not include a survey of how much fish and what kind the pregnant mothers consumed. This information would have been useful for revising recommendations.

Image:  Attribution Some rights reserved by chefranden

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