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Consuming fish safely: Mercury biomonitoring project

Plate of raw sushi

What is the problem?

Mercury is a toxin that occurs in the environment naturally and as a result of industrial pollution. Methylmercury is a form of mercury found in some fish and shellfish. It poses a risk to people who consume certain types of fish and shellfish. The greatest risk is to women of childbearing age and to children, who should not eat certain types of fish. Mercury can damage the nervous system of young children and developing fetuses.

Human exposure to mercury through fish consumption is a growing concern in the United States. Areas with high mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and that have populations who frequently consume fish are of most concern. To help people eat the proper amount and species, they need accurate information about how much and what types of fish to consume.

What did Tracking do?

Researchers evaluated fish eating patterns among women of child-bearing age in Duval and Martin Counties, their research also included mercury biomonitoring. Participants completed a survey about their fish eating habits, knowledge of fish consumption advisories, pregnancy status, demographic and socio-economic information, and mercury exposure history. And each participant provided a scalp hair sample for mercury analysis.

Results showed that women of child-bearing age in Duval and Martin Counties consume more fish than their counterparts in other areas of the United States and that their hair-mercury levels are higher than the participants of the study who do not consume fish. Because of the low local awareness of fish advisories, increased education is needed about the advisories and about mercury exposure among at-risk populations in Duval and Martin Counties.

Improved public health

The Florida Tracking Program created the Fish for Your Health Wallet Card. It contains information about what types and amounts of fish to eat. It encourages women to enjoy the health benefits of certain kinds of fish but also avoid unsafe amounts of mercury. The card lists

  • Species of fish by different categories of mercury content, and
  • Suggested amounts of fish to eat each week.

The Florida Tracking Program distributes the wallet cards to county health departments, state fish markets and grocery stores, and to the Florida Medical Association (FMA). The FMA sends the wallet cards to local branches and to physicians' offices.