Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Safe Fish Consumption - Caution: Mercury

As the summer fishing season continues, it is important to consider the recommended servings of fish you eat in order to reduce your possible exposure to contaminants found in fish. Fish is very nutritious and an excellent addition to a healthy diet. Keep reading to learn about smart choices to enjoy fish and limit exposure to mercury.

While mercury occurs naturally in the environment, excess mercury enters our environment from pollution. Bacteria in water naturally converts mercury to the methylmercury, which fish end up eating. So when we eat fish, we also often eat methylmercury. Methylmercury can accumulate in the bloodstream and is harmful to consume in large quantities, especially for pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, children, and the elderly or those with other underlying health conditions.

Health risks for high levels of mercury include loss of peripheral vision, muscle weakness, lack of coordination of movements, and impairment of speech, hearing, and walking. Unborn infants and young children are at risk for neurological development difficulties related to cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.

Fish offers a wide variety of health benefits when eaten as recommended. It is high in protein yet low in fat, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B12, calcium, phosphorus, and important minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. Mercury is stored in the muscle of fish so it is impossible to avoid completely, however the Washington State Department of Health has recommendations for safe fish consumption including to eat smaller, younger fish, and to avoid eating the skin and fat.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends eating 8-12 ounces (about 2-3 servings) per week of fish and offers three main safety tips for safe fish consumption:

1. Do not eat: Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel and Tilefish. These fish contain very high levels of mercury. 

  • Mercury builds up in the food chain from small fish to large, older fish as they consume the smaller fish. For this reason, fish such as Albacore tuna, halibut, pike, and those mentioned above should be eaten less frequently because they usually contain higher levels of mercury due to their "small fish diet". Bottom dwelling fish should also be consumed with caution as most chemicals in the water settle to the floor of water bodies where these fish primarily feed.
2. Eat up to 12 ounces (less for children) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, and catfish. Note: Albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. 

3. Check WA Fish Consumption Advisories to make the safest choices for eating fish by family and friends in our local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. 

Living in the Pacific Northwest fortunately comes with a wide availability of tasty seafood. Being mindful of safe consumption practices can limit our exposure to mercury and other chemicals, while still receiving health benefits and tasty cuisine. You can help reduce mercury pollution by properly disposing of products containing mercury, minimizing household waste, and reducing burning of coal and fossil fuels. 

For more information regarding mercury, safe fish consumption, and statewide fish advisories visit: http://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/Food/Fish

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