Mercury risk to US pregnancies

Posted: 27 March 2001

One in 10 women of childbearing age in the US are at risk of having newborns with neurological problems due to in utero mercury exposure, according to a government study released in March 2001. Fetuses are exposed to mercury in the womb primarily because of their mothers' consumption of fish, and are highly susceptible to related health problems.

"These new findings amount to an estimated 375,000 babies being born each year at-risk of neurological problems due to exposure to mercury in the womb," said Michael Bender, Executive Director of the Mercury Policy Project. "Data in the Centers for Disease Control report indicate that at least 10 per cent of women of childbearing age have levels of mercury in their bodies that exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable and this translates to nearly six million women."

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report provides results from the first nationally representative sample of mercury in human blood and hair in the U.S. Earlier reports were based on estimates of human fish consumption. The study results are contained in the March 2, 2001 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"New studies show that far more women are at risk of exposure to methlymercury than previously thought," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It is imperative that the Food and Drug Administration act promptly to monitor commercial seafood for mercury and to remove unsafe fish from the market."

Mercury is released into the atmosphere by air pollution from power plants, waste incinerators and industrial processes. It is emitted into the air and then deposited into oceans, lakes and streams where it is ingested by fish, and then by humans and wildlife.

"High mercury levels were previously thought to be largely confined to individuals who eat significantly more fish than the average person," said Andy Buchsbaum, Water Quality Project Manager at the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center. "These new results indicate that exposure to mercury may be more widespread and not limited to large consumers of fish."

For more information, see the Mercury Policy Project website.