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Mercury in Fish: Safety Studies

Eating commercially available fish should not be a problem, say FDA toxicologists. The 1 ppm limit FDA had set for commercial fish is considerably lower than levels of methyl mercury in fish that have caused illness.

For information about the likely outcome of eating fish with low levels of methyl mercury, scientists look to studies of persons exposed to high levels; in particular, studies of two poisoning episodes from highly contaminated fish in Japan in the 1960's, and another poisoning incident in Iraq in the 1970's involving contaminated grain.

In the first episode, which occurred in Minimata, Japan, 111 people died or became very ill (mostly from nervous system damage) from eating fish (often daily over extended periods) from waters that were severely polluted with mercury from local industrial discharge.

Following a similar incident in Nigata, Japan, where 120 people were poisoned, studies showed that the harm caused by methyl mercury poisoning, particularly the neurological symptoms, can progress over a period of years after exposure has ended. The average mercury content of fish samples from both areas ranged from 9 to 24 ppm, though in Minimata, some fish were found to have levels as high as 40 ppm. Fortunately, no similar incidents have occurred in the United States.

The best indexes of exposure to methyl mercury are concentrations in hair and blood. The average concentrations of total mercury in non-exposed people is about 8 parts per billion (ppb) in blood and 2 ppm in hair. From the Japanese studies, toxicologists have learned that the lowest mercury level in adults associated with toxic effects (paresthesia) was 200 ppb in blood and 50 ppm in hair, accumulated over months to years of eating contaminated food.

The Japanese studies did not, however, provide information on what levels of methyl mercury might adversely affect the fetus and infant.

"There is no doubt that when humans are exposed to high levels of methyl mercury, poisoning and problems in the nervous system can occur," Bolger says.

The types of symptoms reflect the degree of exposure. Paresthesia (numbness and tingling sensations around the lips, fingers and toes) usually is the first symptom. A stumbling gait and difficulty in articulating words is the next progressive symptom, along with a constriction of the visual fields, ultimately leading to tunnel vision and impaired hearing. Generalized muscle weakness, fatigue, headache, irritability, and inability to concentrate often occur. In severe cases, tremors or jerks are present. These neurological problems frequently lead to coma and death.

"During prenatal life, humans are susceptible to the toxic effects of high methyl mercury exposure levels because of the sensitivity of the developing nervous system," Bolger explains. Methyl mercury easily crosses the placenta, and the mercury concentration rises to 30 percent higher in fetal red blood cells than in those of the mother.

"But none of the studies of methyl mercury poisoning victims have clearly shown the level at which newborns can tolerate exposure," Bolger says. "It is clear that at exposure levels that affect the fetus, adults are also susceptible to adverse effects. What is not clear is the effect, if any, on fetuses at much lower levels--those that approach current exposure levels through normal fish consumption."

Studies of the poisoning incident in Iraq have provided limited data about what effects low levels of methyl mercury exposures to the fetus have on the infant. One possible effect, for example, is lateness in walking. In the fall and winter of 1971-72, wheat seed intended for planting--and which had therefore been treated with an alkyl mercury fungicide--was mistakenly used to prepare bread; more than 6,500 Iraqis were hospitalized with neurological symptoms and 459 died. The vast majority of the mothers experienced exposures that resulted in hair levels greater than the lowest levels associated with effects in adults. But there was no clear evidence that the fetus was more sensitive than the adult to methyl mercury.

Another study on methyl mercury toxicity was published by the World Health Organization in 1990. It concluded, "the general population does not face a significant health risk from methyl mercury." Bolger says there is a consensus among scientists on all the results of this study except for the findings related to the relationship between low exposure levels and fetal toxicity.

Searching for More Information

FDA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are supporting a study by the University of Rochester to gather conclusive data on the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of methyl mercury in the fetus and infant. The study is being conducted in the Seychelles Islands, off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean.

Fish is the major source of protein for people in the Seychelles Islands. Begun about 10 years ago, the study focuses on the approximately 700 pregnancies that occur on the islands each year.

"That's a more significant database than we had in the Iraqi study," says Bolger. "Also, the population is mostly Muslim," he says, a religion that prohibits smoking and drinking, behaviors that could affect the prenatal health of fetuses (and interfere with efforts to understand the subtle effects of methyl mercury).

The study tracks women from pregnancy to childbirth, and monitors the babies' consumption of breast milk. As children grow older, they are followed for any signs of nervous system disorders. Reports from the Seychelles study are not ready for publication, but Bolger expects the results to make a significant contribution to the consideration of whether further controls or other actions may be needed.


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