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Diet & Health : Children & Women Last Updated: Apr 20, 2011 - 9:38:09 AM


Eating fish during pregnancy raises IQ in children
By Ben Wasserman - foodconsumer.org
Feb 16, 2007 - 11:17:44 AM

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Children born to mothers who ate at least three servings of fish a week during pregnancy had significantly higher scores in tests of mental function in their early years, according to a new British-American study published in the Feb. 17 issue of the journal The Lancet.

The conclusion conflicts with the United States government's fish advisory on fish consumption for pregnant women.

"For the baby's development, at the level of 12 ounces a week during pregnancy, the beneficial effects of the nutrients in fish far outweigh the risk," healthyday.com quoted Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a clinical investigator at the U.S. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and lead author of the study report.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Administration and the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory in 2004, which is still current, telling pregnant women to avoid eating more than 340 grams of fish -- about 12 ounces a week -- because of the danger of mercury poisoning.

According to the current finding, however, maternal seafood intake during pregnancy of less than 340 grams a week was associated with drastically increased risk of children being in the bottom 25 percent of verbal IQ at the age of 8 years and with suboptimum performance on tests of social behavior, fine motor activity, communication and social development.

Hibbeln was cited by as saying the FDA and the EPA have been briefed on the results of the study.

In response, Suzanne Ackerman, a spokeswoman for the EPA, was quoted as saying, "We looked at all the relevant information before issuing the guidelines. It is much too early to say whether one study will change the guidelines."

Similarly Veronica Castro, an FDA spokeswoman expressed the FDA's view on the finding saying, "We have made no changes to our current information regarding pregnant women and seafood consumption," quoted by healthyda.com.

In the study, researchers followed the children of 11,875 women living in Bristol, England, who had expected due delivery dates between April 1991 and December 1992.  The mothers were surveyed for their diet four times during pregnancy and the children were assessed periodically for their social and developmental skills.

"We noted that children of mothers who ate small amounts (less than 340 grams per week) of seafood were more likely to have suboptimum neurodevelopmental outcomes than children of mothers who ate more seafood than the recommended amounts," the researchers write in their study report.

Not surprisingly, the apparent benefits "most likely" came from the high content of omega-3 fatty acids in fish, Hibbeln said. As for mercury, the fish consumed in England "appears to have more methyl mercury in it than the fish eaten in the United States, particularly tuna," he was quoted as saying.

"Our study has shown that the benefits of eating fish do outweigh the risks," Jean Golding, professor emeritus of pediatric epidemiology at the University of Bristol and a co-investigator for the study was quoted by healthday.com as saying.

"That might be at least three portions a week. Not at every meal, but we couldn't see with the information we had any harm from eating fish."

This statement is in disagreement with some previous study that showed that eating too much may offset the benefits from fatty fish oil or fish omega-3 fatty acids.  Because of that, some researchers suggested that fish consumption should be limited according to the FDA/EPA fish consumption advisory.


The following is the FDA opinion regarding childbearing women and fish consumption cited from the FDA in verbatim.




AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FOR PREGNANT WOMEN AND WOMEN OF CHILDBEARING AGE WHO MAY BECOME PREGNANT
ABOUT THE RISKS OF MERCURY IN FISH*



Seafood can be an important part of a balanced diet for pregnant women. It is a good source of high quality protein and other nutrients and is low in fat.

However, some fish contain high levels of a form of mercury called methylmercury that can harm an unborn child's developing nervous system if eaten regularly. By being informed about methylmercury and knowing the kinds of fish that are safe to eat, you can prevent any harm to your unborn child and still enjoy the health benefits of eating seafood.

HOW DOES MERCURY GET INTO FISH?

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and it can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can get into surface water, accumulating in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform mercury into methylmercury that can be toxic. Fish absorb methylmercury from water as they feed on aquatic organisms.

HOW CAN I AVOID LEVELS OF MERCURY THAT COULD HARM MY UNBORN CHILD?

Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, which are not harmful to humans. However, long-lived, larger fish that feed on other fish accumulate the highest levels of methylmercury and pose the greatest risk to people who eat them regularly. You can protect your unborn child by not eating these large fish that can contain high levels of methylmercury:

Shark
Swordfish
King mackerel
Tilefish

While it is true that the primary danger from methylmercury in fish is to the developing nervous system of the unborn child, it is prudent for nursing mothers and young children not to eat these fish as well.

IS IT ALL RIGHT TO EAT OTHER FISH?

Yes. As long as you select a variety of other kinds of fish while you are pregnant or may become pregnant, you can safely enjoy eating them as part of a healthful diet. You can safely eat 12 ounces per week of cooked fish. A typical serving size of fish is from 3 to 6 ounces. Of course, if your serving sizes are smaller, you can eat fish more frequently. You can choose shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish or farm-raised fish- just pick a variety of different species.

WHAT IF I EAT MORE THAN 12 OUNCES OF FISH A WEEK?

There is no harm in eating more than 12 ounces of fish in one week as long as you don't do it on a regular basis. One week's consumption does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all. If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back the next week or two and be just fine. Just make sure you average 12 ounces of fish a week.

Some kinds of fish are known to have much lower than average levels of methylmercury and can be safely eaten more frequently and in larger amounts. Contact your federal, state, or local health department or other appropriate food safety authority for specific consumption recommendations about fish caught or sold in your local area.

WHAT ABOUT THE FISH CAUGHT BY MY FAMILY OR FRIENDS IN FRESH WATER LAKES AND STREAMS? ARE THEY SAFE TO EAT?

There can be a risk of contamination from mercury in fresh waters from either natural or industrial causes that would make the fish unsafe for you or your family to eat. The Environmental Protection Agency provides current advice on fish consumption from fresh water lakes and streams. Also check with your state or local health department to see if there are special advisories on fish caught from waters in your local area.

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. So, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

By following these 3 recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish

1. What is mercury and methylmercury?

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.

2. I'm a woman who could have children but I'm not pregnant - so why should I be concerned about methylmercury?

If you regularly eat types of fish that are high in methylmercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream over time. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is the reason why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid eating certain types of fish.

3. Is there methylmercury in all fish and shellfish?

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA.

4. I don't see the fish I eat in the advisory. What should I do?

If you want more information about the levels in the various types of fish you eat, see the FDA food safety web site or the EPA Fish Advisory website.

5. What about fish sticks and fast food sandwiches?

Fish sticks and "fast-food" sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.

6. The advice about canned tuna is in the advisory, but what's the advice about tuna steaks?

Because tuna steak generally contains higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of tuna steak per week.

7. What if I eat more than the recommended amount of fish and shellfish in a week?

One week's consumption of fish does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all. If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.

8. Where do I get information about the safety of fish caught recreationally by family or friends?

Before you go fishing, check your Fishing Regulations Booklet for information about recreationally caught fish. You can also contact your local health department for information about local advisories. You need to check local advisories because some kinds of fish and shellfish caught in your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. This depends on the levels of mercury in the water in which the fish are caught. Those fish with much lower levels may be eaten more frequently and in larger amounts.

Further Information

For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit FDA's Food Safety Website.

For further information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's Fish Advisory website or contact your State or Local Health Department. For information on EPA's actions to control mercury, visit EPA's mercury website.

Background information about the advisory




This document has been superceded by the March 2004 advisory
What You Need To Know About Mercury In Fish And Shellfish (March 19, 2004), which is cited below:

What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish

2004 EPA and FDA Advice For:
Women Who Might Become Pregnant
Women Who are Pregnant
Nursing Mothers
Young Children

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. So, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

By following these 3 recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.

  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish:

  1. "What is mercury and methylmercury?"
    Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.

  2. "I'm a woman who could have children but I'm not pregnant - so why should I be concerned about methylmercury?"
    If you regularly eat types of fish that are high in methylmercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream over time. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is the reason why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid eating certain types of fish.

  3. "Is there methylmercury in all fish and shellfish?"
    Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA.

  4. "I don't see the fish I eat in the advisory. What should I do?"
    If you want more information about the levels in the various types of fish you eat, see the FDA food safety website www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html or the EPA website at www.epa.gov/ost/fish.

  5. "What about fish sticks and fast food sandwiches?"
    Fish sticks and "fast-food" sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.

  6. "The advice about canned tuna is in the advisory, but what's the advice about tuna steaks?"
    Because tuna steak generally contains higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of tuna steak per week.

  7. "What if I eat more than the recommended amount of fish and shellfish in a week?"
    One week's consumption of fish does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all. If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.

  8. "Where do I get information about the safety of fish caught recreationally by family or friends?"
    Before you go fishing, check your Fishing Regulations Booklet for information about recreationally caught fish. You can also contact your local health department for information about local advisories. You need to check local advisories because some kinds of fish and shellfish caught in your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. This depends on the levels of mercury in the water in which the fish are caught. Those fish with much lower levels may be eaten more frequently and in larger amounts.

For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit FDA's Food Safety website www.cfsan.fda.gov/seafood1.html

For further information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's Fish Advisory website www.epa.gov/ost/fish or contact your State or Local Health Department. A list of state or local health department contacts is available at www.epa.gov/ost/fish. Click on Federal, State, and Tribal Contacts. For information on EPA's actions to control mercury, visit EPA's mercury website at www.epa.gov/mercury.

This document is available on the web at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html.








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