A worldwide warning about the risks of eating mercury-contaminated fish was issued by an international group of scientists. Three times more mercury is entering the atmosphere than before the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. Fish absorb the toxic chemical, which pollutes seas and lakes, posing a risk especially to children and women of childbearing age. The role of low-level pollutants such as lead and mercury on the growing brain has been known for decades and measures have been taken to reduce exposure to a minimum. But many people think more must be done.
The warning is based on five papers by mercury specialists summarizing the current state of knowledge on the chemical published in the international science journal Ambio. Called the Madison Declaration on Mercury Pollution, it presents 33 key findings from four expert panels over the past year. Every member of the four panels backed the declaration, which was endorsed by more than 1,000 scientists at an international conference on mercury pollution in Madison, Wisconsin.
This warning runs counter to research by British scientists, which found pregnant women who ate the most fish, had children who were more advanced, with higher IQs and better physical abilities. The British researchers said that while mercury is known to harm brain development, fish also contain omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, which are essential to brain development. They studied 9,000 families taking part in the Children of the 90s project at the University of Bristol and concluded, in The Lancet, that the risks of eating fish were outweighed by the benefits.
The US scientists focused on the risks of mercury, which they say, now constitute a public health problem in most regions of the world. In addition to its toxic effects on the human fetus, new evidence indicates it may increase the risk of heart disease, particularly in adult men.
What the study found:
Three times more mercury is falling from the sky today than before the Industrial Revolution
Eating fish is the primary way most people are exposed to the toxic metal
There is solid scientific evidence of the toxic effects of mercury on the developing fetus
Mercury exposure now constitutes a public health problem in most regions of the world
New evidence suggests exposure to mercury may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke in men
Increased mercury emissions from developing countries over the past 30 years have outstripped declines in the developed world
Increasing mercury concentrations are now being detected in fish-eating wildlife in remote areas of the planet