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New Report Fuels Confusion About Women, Fish

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A swordfish steak.

Swordfish can have a high level of mercury, which puts it on the list of fish that pregnant women should not eat. hide caption

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A group called the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition is urging pregnant women and new mothers to eat more seafood. It's a message that women have heard before. But the coalition's recommendations conflict with official public health advice. It urges women to eat at least 12 ounces of seafood per week, which is stirring a lot of controversy

"I really think that's the wrong recommendation to be making," says pediatrician Frank Greer, chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We really should not be implying that women should be eating more than 12 ounces of seafood."

"No more than 12 ounces" is the government's advice.

Weighing Risks and Benefits

The National Academy of Sciences conducted an exhaustive review of the evidence surrounding safe consumption of fish. It weighed the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids against the possible risks from mercury contamination and other industrial pollution.

The Academy concluded that pregnant women should consume no more than 12 ounces of seafood per week. That's three to four servings. And that's the advice that most doctors stick with.

The top federal government agencies in charge of delivering public health messages expressed surprise over the announcement from Healthy Mothers, Healthy babies recommending increased fish consumption.

"We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it," says Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Pearson says neither the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor the Food and Drug Administration knew about the announcement.

Funding from Fisheries

During the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies news conference, the moderator, Elizabeth Jordan, was asked how the organization is funded. She acknowledged that the group has received funding from the National Fisheries Institute — an industry group that promotes seafood.

"We actually received a $60,000 educational grant," Jordan said. "That money is put forth to create a microsite for the information presented here today."

Jordan said a Web site will be used to help inform consumers.

But the National Fisheries Institute funding constitutes a conflict of interest, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"It's very troubling that the National Fisheries Institute is essentially paying for a public health message," Smith-DeWaal says.

The executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Judy Meehan, says its message is not tainted by the industry funding.

"The industry has brought the panel together, paid for their travel to review the science, and they are allowing us to share our message that it's really important to eat fish," Meehan says.

That's something almost everyone agrees on — as long as it doesn't exceed 12 ounces per week.

With reporting by Joe Neel, Joanne Silberner and Erin Marie Williams.

Fish FAQ: What You Need to Know About Mercury


As a rule, the bigger the fish, the higher the mercury content. Environmental Protection Agency hide caption

toggle caption Environmental Protection Agency

What is mercury?

Mercury is an element that occurs naturally in the environment. It can also be released into the atmosphere through industrial pollution. Because mercury dissolves easily in water, it accumulates at the bottom of bodies of water.

What is methylmercury? How does it enter the food chain?

In environments without oxygen, mercury combines with carbon to become methylmercury, a highly toxic compound. Bottom-dwelling fish consume methylmercury particles on the ocean floor and are then eaten by larger fish. Large fish such as sharks, swordfish and king mackerel contain the largest amounts of methylmercury because they're higher up in the food chain.

Why is methylmercury dangerous?

Methylmercury is toxic. It can harm the immune system, the gastrointestinal system, and even the genetic code. It attacks the central nervous system. High levels of exposure will result in brain damage and eventual death.

Most people already have some levels of methylmercury in their system from eating fish, but effects of mercury exposure depend on factors like age and amount of exposure. Trace amounts of methylmercury are excreted over time.

Should I stop eating fish?

No. The health benefits of fish outweigh the side effects of methylmercury exposure. The FDA recommends the following:

1. Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. These fish typically contain high levels of mercury.

2. It's not risky to eat up to 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

3. You may also eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna, but the level of mercury is higher in albacore tuna than in light tuna, so substitute other types of fish for your other 6 ounces.

Why should pregnant women avoid methylmercury?

Developing embryos are particularly sensitive to methylmercury, so pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant are advised to avoid all large fish. They should also eat no more than one six-ounce serving of tuna a week, and should limit overall consumption of fish to no more than 12 ounces a week, according to the FDA.

What if I want to catch and eat my own fish?

Contact your local health department about mercury advisories in the waters where you plan on fishing. Fish that is caught recreationally may be OK, depending on whether your local waters have higher or lower mercury levels. If no advice is available, eat up to one meal a week of fish from local waters, but don't consume other fish that week.

Sources: Food and Drug Administration; Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Geological Survey; and other NPR reports



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