Monday, December 15, 2008

A Fishy Advisory

Fish and shellfish are important to a heart-healthy and over-all healthy diet. However, when it comes to pregnancy and young children, a safety concern arises due to the mercury content found in fish.

Because mercury in fish could put an unborn, newborn, or young child at risk, Robert Goyer, MD, professor emeritus and chairman of pathology at University of Western Ontario, advises women, especially those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, to be cautious “because their unborn fetus is very sensitive to toxicity from mercury.”

Goyer, who participated in a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study evaluating the credibility of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) mercury studies, said that they came up with the same results the EPA did.
“We don’t know which stage of fetal development is more critical -- whether it’s the third trimester or the moment of conception, or if it’s continuous exposure to mercury during pregnancy. But all this has been factored together in the EPA/FDA advisory,” said Goyer.

Last year, EPA and FDA issued a joint statement citing the health benefits of fish:

“Fish and shellfish contain high quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. Thus, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits,” said the EPA/FDA.

However, since mercury may have damaging effects to an unborn child or a young child’s brain development, “it may be prudent to modify your diet if you are: planning to become pregnant; pregnant; nursing; or a young child,” added the EPA/FDA statement.

The following EPA/FDA advisory is addressed especially to pregnant women, young women who may become pregnant, or women who are nursing:

  • Do not eat fish that contain high levels of mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.

  • Eat up to 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish varieties that are lower in mercury, including shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. (An average can of tuna is 6 ounces.)

  • Buy canned tuna carefully. Light tuna has less mercury than albacore (“white”) tuna. However, up to 6 ounces equivalent to one average meal of albacore tuna per week is safe.

  • Check local fish advisories. In the absence of advice, eat up to 6 ounces per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.

  • Apply these guidelines to young children: They can eat these low-mercury fish and shellfish. However, feed children smaller portions.

  • Frozen fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.

  • Tuna steaks generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna.
Resource Box: Monch Bravante is a freelance writer and advertising practitioner with special interest in public health issues.

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