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Mercury levels higher in women in Northeast, coastal areas

January 15, 2009 | 10:13 am

Fish1 Health officials have warned consumers for several years to avoid consuming too much of any type of fish that tends to be high in mercury. High blood mercury levels can cause serious health problems and are particularly dangerous for pregnant women because the toxin may harm the fetus.

A study published in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives suggests consumers are getting the message about mercury poisoning in fish. But women in the Northeast and women who live in coastal areas are much more likely to have mercury levels that exceed what is considered safe compared with women who live in the inland areas of the South, West and Midwest.

Researchers used data from a large, national nutrition survey collected from 1999 to 2004 and found that women in the Northeast were the most likely to have blood mercury concentrations above 3.5 micrograms per liter. Almost 1 in 5 women in the Northeast had levels that are considered too high. More than 16% of women living in counties that bordered an ocean or the Gulf of Mexico had levels that are considered too high. Nationwide, about 10% of women had levels at or greater than 3.5 micrograms per liter.

During the period studied there was a decline overall in the proportion of women with high mercury levels. The total consumption of fish and shellfish did not decrease, however, suggesting that people are being more careful about the fish they choose. Information on mercury levels in specific fish and how to avoid mercury poisoning can be found at the Environmental Protection Agency website.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times