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Study finds fish safe, despite mercury.

Even though the world's fish contain slight amounts of mercury, eating lots of fish does not constitute a detectable health risk, even for very young children and pregnant women, concludes a study by University of Rochester researchers. The nine-year study, results of which were published in the August 26, 1998, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was conducted in the Republic of Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Republic of Seychelles.

In 1980, the study enrolled 779 newborn children, about half the births on the islands that year. Most residents of Seychelles eat nearly a dozen fish meals each week, and their blood mercury levels are about 10 times higher than those of most U.S. citizens. From the children's mothers, the research team took samples of hair, which lock in a record of the children's mercury exposure during gestation. A neurologist, a childhood development expert, and nurses then studied the children at six, 19, 29, and 66 months of age, visiting their homes, talking to their parents, and performing nearly three dozen sensitive developmental and neurological tests designed to detect subtle effects of mercury exposure.

Scientists have debated the health effects of low levels of mercury for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has proposed slashing the amount of mercury it considers safe to ingest from 30 micrograms ([[micro]gram]) per day - the limit recommended by the World Health Organization and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - to just 6 [[micro]gram] per day. To follow the new guidelines, FDA would have to take off the market a significant proportion of the fish now available, especially large predatory fish like swordfish, shark, and red snapper. The guideline could even affect tuna. The University of Rochester researchers fear that the guideline also might cause consumers who associate mercury with health dangers to limit their intake of fish, which is a remarkably healthy form of nutrition. Eating fish has been shown to help protect against cardiovascular disease and to enhance brain development before and after birth. Fish is a rich source of low-fat protein and is full of fatty acids known to lower cholesterol. Scientists estimate that under the proposed rules, the average person would be able to eat only a few ounces of fish per week before bumping up against the new mercury limit.

In the United States, the conclusion that it is safe to eat fish applies only to fish bought and sold commercially, at grocery stores, supermarkets, fish shops, and restaurants. Those fish are already regulated, and current regulations are sufficient to safeguard frequent fish eaters from the health effects of mercury. Consumers still should follow advisories about fish caught in lakes and rivers. Fish from hundreds of polluted waterways should not be eaten in abundance; in addition to mercury, these fish often contain other pollutants such as PCBs.

For more information about the study, see the web site listed in the Environmental Health-'Net section on page 43.
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Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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