A quarter of adult New Yorkers have elevated blood mercury levels, according to survey results released by the Health Department, and the elevations are closely tied to fish consumption. Asian and higher-income New Yorkers eat more fish, and have higher average mercury levels, than others both locally and nationally. These mercury levels pose little if any health risk for most adults, but may increase the risk of cognitive delays for children whose mothers had very high mercury levels during pregnancy.
Blood Mercury Levels - NYC-HANES
These findings are the latest presented from New York City's Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NYC-HANES), the first such survey ever conducted by a U.S. city. It's possible that other cities have similarly high levels, or higher ones, but haven't yet documented them. Because mercury is a concern for the health of newborns, recommendations on mercury exposure are most important for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Health officials emphasized that fish is an important part of a healthy diet, and that moderate fish consumption has many health benefits. "For most people, frequent fish consumption is not a concern," said Daniel Kass, the Health Department's Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Surveillance and Policy. "Fish is a good source of protein and heart-healthy fats, and it's low in calories and unhealthy fats."
During pregnancy, however, mercury can pass from a mother's bloodstream to a developing fetus. Small amounts can also pass into breast milk. And exposure to significant amounts of mercury early in life may cause learning problems because the brain is still developing. "No one needs to stop eating fish, but some people may need to change the type and amount they eat," Kass said. "Young children, breastfeeding mothers, and women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy should eat fish that are lower in mercury and limit fish that are higher in mercury."
To help educate New Yorkers about which fish is right for them, the Health Department has developed recommendations for pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children. They're contained in a brochure entitled "Eat Fish, Choose Wisely," which is available in English, Spanish and Chinese through 311. The brochure provides advice about how to keep eating fish while keeping mercury exposure low:
The brochure lists fish by their level of mercury. High-mercury fish include Chilean sea bass, grouper, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, tuna steaks and sushi grade tuna. A typical adult serving size is 4 to 6 ounces (a 4-ounce fish steak or fillet is about the size and thickness of a deck of cards). A child's serving should be smaller. To estimate serving sizes, read food labels or ask about weight.
People who eat larger portions can avoid excessive mercury by eating fish less often than recommended in the chart. Restaurant servings are often much larger than the recommended serving size.
The Health Department also reminds people about contaminants in fish caught in New York City's rivers and harbors. "Young adults and women who are pregnant or nursing and young children shouldn't eat fish caught in the East or Hudson Rivers or in New York Harbor," said Kass. They may contain harmful contaminants.
Increasing Awareness and Reducing Mercury Levels
The Health Department is working to raise awareness about how to make fish a healthy part of a person's diet. The agency has:
These findings are the latest presented from New York City's first-ever Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NYC-HANES), conducted in 2004. It was modeled after the federal National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). In NYC-HANES, the Health Department assessed a variety of health issues by visiting households to gather information, and conducted face-to-face interviews, physical exams, and laboratory tests at a health center. NYC-HANES is providing the clearest picture yet of New York City's physical and mental well-being. Information released earlier this year showed that 100,000 New Yorkers have seriously out of control diabetes, and that 430,000 New Yorkers suffer from depression. Findings from NYC-HANES also helped reveal the presence of mercury in some imported skin-lightening creams.
Materials provided by New York City Health Department. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Cite This Page: