Mercury and Seafood

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment. It is found in minute quantities in all living matter, including air, soil, and water. During growth, plants absorb mercury from the soil and air. Fish can consume small amounts of mercury from food plants. In fact, this cycle of mercury from one form to another is a part of nature that pre-dates man. According to scientists from the University of California-Davis, “Our use of mercury has probably not significantly increased the mercury concentration in the oceans.”

Federal health authorities agree that consumption of commercial seafood is safe. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the safety of commercial seafood in the United States, have made it clear that consumers do not need to change their eating habits or avoid eating any seafood products.

In a report issued by EPA in December, 1997, the Agency pointed out that the levels of mercury encountered in commercial fish are generally low. Both EPA and FDA have stated that it is safe for consumers to eat canned tuna and other seafoods from grocery stores and restaurants. Neither agency advises consumers to limit overall fish consumption.

There have been no known public health incidents associated with consumption of mercury in commercial seafood in the United States or Canada, even though fish consumption has risen considerably in the past decade. Moreover, the World Health Organization’s most recent assessment of the risk from mercury in fish stated that the general population does not face a significant health risk from methyl mercury in the environment.

FDA has recommended that pregnant women and women of childbearing age limit their consumption of shark and swordfish to no more than once a month. These fish can have a higher level of mercury than other commonly consumed fish, so limiting consumption of shark and swordfish can help assure that mercury exposure is kept below the acceptable daily intake level.

In April, 1999, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced a revised health standard for mercury. The standard is based on the latest studies of low-level mercury contamination from fish consumption. In setting the revised standard, the agency noted that people can consume as much as 0.3 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of their body weight without health risks, an amount three times the level EPA had previously considered safe NFPA agrees with FDA that fish is an important source of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals. Eating a varied, balanced, and moderate diet — including canned tuna and other fish — does not put anyone at risk of mercury poisoning.

For more information on mercury and seafood, telephone the 24-hour FDA Seafood Hotline at 1-800- FDA-4010 (202/205-4314 in the Washington, D.C. area).