Mercury Exposure from Domestic and Imported Estuarine and Marine Fish in the U.S. Seafood Market

By Sunderland, Elsie M. | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Mercury Exposure from Domestic and Imported Estuarine and Marine Fish in the U.S. Seafood Market


Sunderland, Elsie M., Environmental Health Perspectives


BACKGROUND: Methylmercury exposure causes a variety of adverse effects on human health. Per capita estimates of mercury exposure are critical for risk assessments and for developing effective risk management strategies.

OBJECTIVE: This study investigated the impact of natural stochasticity in mercury concentrations among fish and shellfish harvested from the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and foreign shores on estimated mercury exposures.

METHODS: Mercury concentrations and seafood consumption are grouped by supply region (Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and foreign shores). Distributions of intakes from this study are compared with values obtained using national FDA (Food and Drug Administration) mercury survey data to assess the significance of geographic variability in mercury concentrations on exposure estimates.

RESULTS: Per capita mercury intake rates calculated using FDA mercury data differ significantly from those based on mercury concentration data for each supply area and intakes calculated for the 90th percentile of mercury concentrations.

CONCLUSIONS: Differences in reported mercury concentrations can significantly affect per capita mercury intake estimates, pointing to the importance of spatially refined mercury concentration data. This analysis shows that national exposure estimates are most influenced by reported concentrations in imported tuna, swordfish, and shrimp; Pacific pollock; and Atlantic crabs. Collecting additional mercury concentration data for these seafood categories would improve the accuracy of national exposure estimates.

KEY WORDS: Atlantic, fish imports, methylmercury, ocean, Pacific, per capita mercury intake, tuna. Environ Health Perspect 115:235-242 (2007). doi:10.1289/ehp.9377 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 20 November 2006]

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Human exposure to methylmercury (MeHg) causes a variety of adverse health effects, including developmental delays in children of exposed mothers (Cohen et al. 2005) and deficits in neurocognitive function in adults (Yokoo et al. 2003). Blood MeHg concentrations in individuals are strongly correlated with the frequency and types of seafood consumed (Mahaffey et al. 2004). However, even for pregnant women, consuming seafood has a variety of health benefits when dietary MeHg intake is known to be low (e.g., Daniels et al. 2004; Mozaffarian and Rimm 2006). Regulatory agencies rely on information about how individuals are exposed to MeHg to evaluate trade-offs among health benefits from fish consumption and potential risks of MeHg exposure.

In the United States, MeHg risk management takes the form of both advisories recommending limits on amounts of high-Hg fish consumed and regulations that control emissions from human sources. Assessing the effectiveness of both strategies in terms of changes in human exposure requires data on a) geographic supply regions for fish consumed by the U.S. population, and b) concentrations of Hg in fish and shellfish.

Comparing the supply of fisheries products for all individuals from the commercial market (18.9 g/person/day, 2000-2002) [National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 2003] to the total intake from dietary recall surveys (16.9 g/person/day, uncooked fish weight, 1994-1996, 1998) [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2002] shows that mean consumption estimates are comparable in magnitude. Hence, across the entire U.S. population, most seafood consumed comes from the commercial market. Estuarine and marine fish and shellfish dominate the edible supply of fish in the commercial market, comprising > 90% of the market share (Carrington et al. 2004). Thus, dietary intake of MeHg from estuarine and marine seafood accounts for most exposure in the U.S. population.

Although many studies have investigated how variability in amounts and types of fish consumed affects MeHg exposure, few addressed uncertainties resulting from natural stochasticity in MeHg concentrations within seafood categories in the commercial market. …

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