The Environment Report
9:00 am
Thu December 5, 2013

Women making healthier decisions at seafood counter

Women are asking which fish contain more of the toxin mercury and choosing those fish. Mercury levels in women's blood have decreased 34% during the last decade.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Over the last decade, women have switched to making much healthier choices at the seafood counter.

First, let's make it clear: fish is healthful food.

But, fish can contain traces of mercury, some fish more than others. And to make sure you don’t consume too much of that toxin, you need to know which fish have heavier loads of mercury.

Why?

Because mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological damage. For women who could have children or who are pregnant, too much mercury could mean developmental problems for their babies.

So, when the EPA found national surveys indicated mercury levels in the blood of women across the nation were falling, they were pretty happy.

Elizabeth Southerland is Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science and Technology.

She explained, “About every two years the CDC does a study of mercury in women’s blood levels and we saw a real drop between 2000 and 2010.”

A 34% drop.

The seafood industry, the Food and Drug Administration, and the EPA have been arguing that making a fuss about mercury levels in fish would be unnecessarily scaring women away from a good source of protein. Turns out, women are a little smarter than the FDA and the seafood industry thought they were.

“People did not reduce their fish intake. So, it has to be if they’re eating the same amount of fish, but now getting less mercury, that they have switched to fish with lower levels of mercury,” Southerland said.

That happened after the federal government and state governments starting issuing fish advisories about seafood and inland lakes fish. Some news media also started covering the issue in greater depth. Women started asking more about the fish they planned to eat.

Jeff Ewing is the meat and seafood team leader at Plum Market in Ann Arbor. He’s one of the people who’d be helping you at the counter.

“The most common question is, ‘Which fish are high in mercury,’ you know, just right off the bat out of any fish.”

LG: What kind of guidance are you able to give them?

“We give them the large generalizations where high mercury fish are going to tend to be your large predatory fish that are higher on the predatory scale, fish that have a long lifespan and those commonly tend to be your fish that are migratory fish that have large bloodlines that eat and gorge a lot of food so they can make long swims. Tuna fish, sword fish, shark, things like that.”

There’s more specific information available from the Michigan Department of Community Health about ocean fish and Great Lakes fish.

Ewing says – just like the study found- people have not given up fish altogether because of mercury concerns.

“The overall consensus that we get from people is that they want to be eating fish because they know it’s a healthy protein, they know it’s a lean protein, they know it carries a lot of the healthy fats, the omega threes and that, so the inquiry does go more along the lines of what is a high mercury fish as opposed to a low mercury fish?”

So, apparently women are getting the word.

At the EPA Elizabeth Southerland says they can’t say definitely that the outreach efforts by the federal and state government –all those fish advisories- actually caused this change in the fish people buy.

“I can say there’s a good chance that they could have learned about this from the EPA/FDA advisory because of the extensive outreach that we conducted.”

It’s not all good news though. People who are subsistence fishers, people who fish in order to have enough food, still have higher levels of mercury. This can affect women and the children they bear. It can also cause short term memory problems for men.

Also, the mercury levels in the fish themselves don’t appear to be any lower than they were a decade ago.

Some of that mercury is in the environment naturally. Some of it comes from burning coal. That’s the main source of mercury contamination in fish in ponds, lakes, and the Great Lakes.

*Support for the Environment Report comes in part from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.