Protect Yourself and Your Family
With smart food choices you can lower your mercury level in six to eight months; it will take longer to get it out of the fish -- so let's start now.
Mercury poisoning is a serious problem, but the solutions are fairly simple: in the short term, watch your consumption of high-mercury fish; in the longer term, help force power companies and other giant mercury polluters to switch to pollution-cutting technologies.
The recommendations in this section about eating fish are largely designed for the people most at risk from mercury poisoning: children and women of childbearing age. Other adults may not need to restrict their diets as much, but can use these guidelines to make informed choices.
Avoid Contaminated Fish
Children under six, as well as women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, are the most vulnerable to mercury's harmful effects. They should restrict or eliminate certain fish from their diet, including ahi or bigeye tuna, tilefish, swordfish, shark, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy and fish caught in any waters that are subject to a mercury advisory. Women with elevated mercury levels should ideally begin avoiding or restricting their consumption of mercury-laden fish as much as a year before they become pregnant. (For more, see our guide to mercury levels in fish.)
Restrict Your Portions
In general, a woman who is pregnant or is likely to get pregnant should eat no more than two cans of light tuna per week, or 2/3 of a can per week of white albacore tuna if she wants to stay below the EPA's level of concern for mercury. Keep in mind that the amount of mercury in a single can varies depending on the type of tuna and where the fish was caught. Albacore or solid white tuna is most likely to have higher concentrations, and chunk light tuna, lower concentrations.
Raw tuna and other sushi fish are also something to watch out for. Often the apex predators of the food chain, these fish tend to be high in mercury. Whenever possible, avoid sushi choices that are highest in mercury, using this list as a guide.
Since children get most of their mercury from canned tuna, it is important for parents to limit their children's consumption to less than one ounce of canned light tuna for every 12 pounds of body weight per week, in order to stay below the level of mercury the EPA considers safe. That means that a child who weighs 36 pounds should not eat more than 3 ounces (half a standard-sized can of chunk light tuna) per week. Children should avoid albacore or white tuna because the levels of mercury are higher.
Check Your Mercury Level
To obtain a quick estimate of your mercury intake, use our Mercury Calculator. For a more accurate reading, you can request a blood mercury test from your physician. Women with a high blood mercury level who are planning to start a family may decide to postpone pregnancy for a few months until levels drop; often this occurs within six months.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently finalized an important set of clean air safeguards to reduce toxic pollution, including mercury, from power plants. Similar standards were adopted for cement plants in 2010. Collectively, these standards would reduce more than 30 tons of mercury, they would save as many as 13,500 American lives and prevent almost 150,000 cases of aggravated asthma every year by 2016.
Unfortunately, mercury standards adopted for industrial boilers in 2011 were put on hold and now under re-consideration for a smaller subset of boilers. Despite overwhelming evidence of their health and environmental benefits, these important standards covering the second largest mercury source in the US are now stuck in a Congressional tug-of-war. Find out more about the fight to save these important mercury reducing measures.
Another way you can learn about and avoid mercury risks is to urge your grocery stores, fish markets and restaurants to label fish accurately and advise consumers about the dangers of mercury in the fish they sell. And be sure to read and print NRDC's mercury guides and to check the mercury calculator.
Photos: top, Getty Images
Use NRDC's Mercury Calculator to find out if you're consuming too much mercury.
If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, use this guide to see what amounts of fish caught and sold commercially are safe to eat.
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