Seafood and Pregnancy: What's Safe and What's Not

6 Most-Asked Questions about Mercury in Fish and Its Effect On Pregnancy

1. What is mercury?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. It then falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans, turning into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that is harmful to your baby. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it may build up in the fish. It builds up more in some types of fish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels in the fish vary.

2. Is there methylmercury in all fish?
Nearly all fish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk to pregnant women. Other types of fish are safe to eat in the amounts recommended by the FDA and EPA.

3. Can I still eat tuna?
Mercury levels in tuna vary. Tuna steaks and canned albacore tuna generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna. You can safely eat up to six ounces of albacore a week.

4. Do I need to be concerned about locally caught fish?
Some kinds of fish and shellfish caught in your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. This depends on the levels of mercury in the water in which the fish are caught. Those fish with lower levels may be safely eaten more frequently and in larger amounts. Before you go fishing, check your fishing regulations booklet for information about local advisories. You can also contact your local health department for information about local advisories.

For further information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, visit the EPA Fish Advisory Website or contact your state or local Health Department.

5. I'm not pregnant. Should I be concerned about methylmercury?
If you regularly eat types of fish that are high in methylmercury, it can accumulate in your bloodstream over time. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is one of the reasons why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid eating certain types of fish.

6. I'm worried that I have been exposed to a large amount of methylmercury.
If you have questions, or think you've been exposed to large amounts of methylmercury, see your health care provider immediately.

For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit the FDA Food Safety Website.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, December 2003

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