Conservation Minnesota

Choosing safe fish for health

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is making it easier for women to choose and eat fish that are lower in common contaminants. In partnership with HealthPartners, MDH has launched a new consumer-friendly web site. This is an excellent resource for women of childbearing years, pregnant women, and parents of young children who benefit the most from safer fish consumption.

Eat safe fish
Fish are a good source of protein and healthy fats, so instead of eliminating fish from your diet, find healthier options. Keep in mind that humans can eliminate mercury from the body over a period of months, so women should carefully follow safe fish consumption advice before becoming pregnant. MDH notes, If you are pregnant or may become pregnant, eating fish is one of the best ways to bring brain-boosting nutrients to your baby to come. Breastfeeding moms also pass these nutrients to their baby.” Getting the benefits of eating fish without the risk of exposure to fish contaminants is especially important for women of childbearing age.

Fish contaminants and their effects on health
Fish are a common repository for an array of toxic chemicals. Minnesota fish are known to contain mercury, perfluorinated chemicals, dioxins and PCBs. These global pollutants are released through combustion and industrial and waste processes and find their way into the food chain. These chemicals are persistent in the environment and build up in aquatic organisms and the human body.

Methyl mercury is a potent brain toxin and chronic exposure is associated with toxicity to the central nervous system. Fetuses and infants exposed to mercury at high levels can experience reduced intelligence, impaired hearing, poor coordination or delayed motor and verbal skills. Fetuses are at greatest risk from exposure to dioxins, which cross the placenta during pregnancy. PCBs were banned in 1979, but their widespread use and persistence in the environment ensures that they continue to contaminate fish. Human health impacts from long-term exposure to low levels of dioxins and PCBs include effects on thyroid hormone, impaired brain development, effects on birth weight and immunity, permanent IQ deficits and cancer.

Sustainable fish choices
In addition to contaminants in fish, there is also a big concern about impacts of fishing and aquaculture practices on the environment and fish species. Issues such as overfishing, bottom trawling, dredging and damaging fish farming practices can decimate fish populations and cause irreparable damage to ocean ecosystems. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site provides guidance for purchasing sustainably-raised and sustainably-caught seafood.

Women can reduce their exposure
A 2011 study by MDH found that ten percent of newborns born to Minnesota North Shore mothers had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. MDH launched a project in partnership with two local clinics to educate women on the benefits of fish consumption and which fish are safer to eat. They measured mercury and healthy fatty acids in the blood of 500 women, who then received education from their health providers on safe fish consumption. After 6 months their blood was tested again with hopeful results. The second blood testing found that levels of fatty acids were the same, but mercury levels went down. This shows that the women in the study continued to eat fish, but choose ones that were lower in harmful contaminants.

Tips for safe and sustainable fish consumption
Everyone can benefit from healthy fish consumption. Here are few quick tips that protect our health and the health of fish populations. Choose chunk light tuna, which is lower in mercury, instead of albacore tuna. Choose shrimp, U.S. tilapia, herring, wild-caught salmon, cod, pollock, scallops, crab, U.S. catfish, sunfish, crappie, yellow perch. Avoid shark, swordfish, tile fish, king mackerel, walleye over 20” and northern pike over 30”. Follow the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines and look for seafood that’s sustainably-raised or sustainably caught.

See our guide to safe, sustainable fish consumption.

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler
Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.
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