MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. There are two new reports about seafood to tell you about today. Both address the confusion over the health risks and benefits, and both conclude that most people gain more from eating fish than they risk by being exposed to environmental contamination such as mercury or PCBs. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: If you've shied away from eating seafood due to concerns over mercury contamination or other types of pollution, you may want to reconsider. Harvard cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian says there are scores of studies to suggest the benefits of consuming fish are quite strong.
Dr. DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN (Cardiologist, Harvard University): When we put all the evidence together, we found from studies in the U.S. and Europe and also from clinical trials that eating fish reduces the risk of dying from a heart attack by about 35 percent - which is, you know, a dramatic benefit.
AUBREY: Mozaffarian is lead author of one of the reports published today. It appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In addition to reviewing the benefits of fish consumption, his team also analyzed studies that have tried to document the risks of exposure to mercury through eating fish.
Dr. MOZAFFARIAN: We didn't find any definite evidence that there are health effects of low-level mercury exposure from seafood intake in the general population.
AUBREY: Mozaffarian says they looked at several studies from Europe, where scientists had measured the amount of mercury accumulated in people's blood or fat tissue, and then analyzed whether higher amounts of mercury might increase a person's risk of a heart attack.
Dr. MOZAFFARIAN: In those studies, some of them show that higher mercuries are associated with harm. Some of them show relatively neutral relationships, and some of them actually show trends towards benefit, where people with higher mercury levels actually had trends towards lower risk of a heart attack.
AUBREY: Given the lack of consistency in the findings, Mozaffarian says there seems to be no significant effect, at least for adults. But in children, there's a separate body of evidence. Several studies from New Zealand and the Faroe Islands do suggest that higher levels of mercury exposure can negatively affect children's brain development.
For this reason, the federal government recommends that pregnant women steer clear of four types of seafood, including swordfish and shark, that are known to contain high amounts of mercury. And women of childbearing age are also advised to limit their intake of other types of fish. The advice, while not new, has created confusion for many consumers, particularly mothers-to-be. Jonathan Scher is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Professor JONATHAN SCHER (Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine): Working with pregnant women, that's an immediate concern when they're deciding to get pregnant or not - what do I do about fish?
AUBREY: And the answer, Scher says, is that women should keep eating fish, particularly species low in mercury. This is also the message coming from the second report released today, written by independent scientific advisors to the federal government at the Institute of Medicine. The report concludes that Omega-3 fatty acids in seafood can contribute to vision and brain development in infants. Panel Chairman Malden Nesheim says in order to get the benefits and not the harm, pregnant women should be advised about which species to avoid and about how much is safe to eat.
Professor MALDEN NESHEIM (Provost Emeritus, Cornell University): A reasonable amount would be two three-ounce servings per week, but they can safely consume up to 12 ounces a week.
AUBREY: The Institute of Medicine report concludes that the best way to end the confusion over who can eat which amounts of fish safely is for the federal government to consolidate all this information in one place, instead of consumers having to get it in bits and pieces from different agencies. As for a guide to the best and worst seafood choices, the group Environmental Defense has developed a list that ranks fish species by mercury pollution, as well as how sustainably their fished. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And you can find a primer on what you need to know about mercury and guidelines for eating fish at npr.org.
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