Women and mercury

Women who make more money and live on or near the coast—particularly in the coastal Northeast—tend to have higher mercury levels in their bodies. That’s according to the nation’s first region-by-region analysis of mercury in women’s blood.

In the Northeast, “nearly one in five women of child-bearing age have eaten so much contaminated fish that the toxic metal in their blood would pose a risk to their fetuses, compared with one in 10 nationally,” reported the Chicago Tribune.

Women from the Midwest and inland Northeast had the least mercury. As for why women with more money tend to have higher mercury levels, the study speculated that some expensive seafood, such as swordfish or high-grade tuna, is often more contaminated.

Data for women in individual states wasn’t provided, but of women living in the West, 10.3 percent were found to have high levels of mercury in their blood (though there were higher levels for those living along the Pacific Coast), which is in keeping with the national average of 10.4 percent.

Nationally, the percentage of women with high mercury levels actually declined from 16 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2004, the most recent data available, even though many of these women aren’t eating less seafood, just different seafood. The researchers say these findings suggest consumer advisories about mercury in fish are starting to work, though the seafood industry and officials with the Food and Drug Administration have thought advising women about which species have higher and lower levels of mercury would scare them away from seafood altogether.

Exposure to mercury in the womb can cause irreversible brain damage to the fetus, causing the child to have a decreased attention span and memory and delay walking and talking.

This study was financed by the EPA with data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was posted on the Environmental Health Perspectives website, www.ehponline.org.