Fishing can be hazardous to your baby's health


Illinois issues warning about eating contaminated fish By Carrie Watson :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

It's fun to fish, but the Illinois Department of Public Health says it may not be safe to eat what you catch.

Go ahead and fish Illinois rivers and lakes this summer. Just don't eat what you catch-particularly if you are a pregnant or nursing mom or a woman who wants to become pregnant.

That is the stark warning issued in the 2004 fish consumption advisory released by the Illinois Department of Public Health. For the first time, the advisory includes a statewide warning not to eat predator fish-those fish that eat other fish-found in Illinois waters because they are likely to contain high levels of methylmercury, a toxic form of mercury. Women of child-bearing age and children under age 15 are advised to eat no more than one meal per week of predator fish, including black bass, striped bass, white bass, flathead catfish and northern pike, among others.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that one in six women of childbearing age in the United States has mercury levels in her blood that are unsafe for a fetus. According to the EPA, this means 630,000 babies born each year have been exposed to enough mercury to harm an infant's developing nervous system, which can lead to learning difficulties, memory loss and speech problems.

Mercury, a natural chemical produced primarily through emissions from coal-fired power plants, is just one of the harmful chemicals found in Illinois fish. According to Tammy Leonard of the Illinois Department of Public Health, two other contaminants common in Illinois fish are chlordane, a pesticide, and PCBs, synthetic oils used in the industrial processes. PCBs and chlordane are no longer used in the United States, but both contaminants break down slowly, which means they will continue to pollute the environment for years to come.

All three contaminants collect in soil and water, then accumulate in fish and are passed along to us through the food chain. The danger comes from regularly eating fish with high levels of mercury-older fish, larger fish and fish that eat other fish.

Safer at the store? The advisory issued by the state's Department of Health is for sport fish caught in Illinois only. So what about the fish you buy at the grocery store or order from a restaurant menu, such as shark, swordfish and tuna?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the EPA issued a joint consumer advisory in March recommending that women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant not eat any shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish-none at all. It is OK, however, to eat up to two average-size meals a week of fish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.

Tuna steaks, commonly thrown on the grill during summer cookouts, contain more mercury than canned light tuna, so the advisory says to eat only one meal of tuna steak per week. The same goes for albacore tuna, which also has more mercury than canned light tuna.

However, Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., says the FDA doesn't go far enough. Her group's research has found that by eating one can of albacore tuna weekly, 74 percent of all women of childbearing age would exceed safe doses of mercury for their pregnancy.

"We think albacore tuna should not be eaten by women of childbearing age-that albacore tuna should go on the do-not-eat list," Sucher says. "Albacore tuna has more mercury in it than tilefish-one of the fish on the do-not-eat list-and nobody even knows what tilefish is. That is wrong-headed advice."

Sucher cites FDA data from 2003 mercury testing showing that bluefish, sea trout, albacore tuna, orange roughy and grouper all have higher concentrations of mercury than tilefish, which only has high levels of mercury when from the Gulf of Mexico. But, she notes, none are on the federal do-not-eat list.

Nonetheless, the FDA and EPA say in their consumer advisory that women and young children should continue to eat fish because of its nutritional benefits, but encourage them to follow the consumption recommendations.

Leonard suggests preparing fish in ways that reduce the amount of contaminants, such as removing the skin and cutting away the fat from the belly and then boiling, baking or grilling the fish to allow most of the fat to drain away. "Fat is where most of the chlordane and PCBs are stored," Leonard says. "But these precautions don't reduce the amount of mercury because it's found throughout a fish's body in muscle tissue, which is the edible part of the fish."

All three contaminants-PCBs, chlordane and mercury-take a long time to leave the human body, so women who are planning to become pregnant should eat very little of the suspect fish-or avoid fish completely-to allow mercury levels in their blood to decrease before pregnancy. Mercury levels can be determined through a physician-ordered blood test.

The specifics The Illinois fish consumption advisory can be downloaded from the Web ( It includes detailed listings for individual bodies of water in the state, the species of contaminated fish and what containment they have in their bodies and the frequency with which the fish should be consumed.

If you want to fish in Illinois and eat what you catch, there are ways to protect yourself:

• Keep smaller fish for eating. Younger fish tend to be less contaminated than older, larger fish.

• Choose panfish such as bluegill, white and black crappie and yellow perch. They tend to have fewer contaminants than predator fish, such as shark and swordfish.

• Eat smaller meals of big fish. Try freezing part of your catch and space the meals over time to give your body time to eliminate contaminants before eating the next helping of fish.

• Eat less fried fish. Frying seals in the chemicals that might be found in the fish's fat.

Carrie Watson is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism who writes for the Medill News Service.

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