64% of Babies Are Born with More Mercury Than Desirable in Bloodstream

Frozen Tuna in Japanese Market
Frozen tuna in a Japanese fish market. Photo by Issei Kato of Reuters.

64% of Babies Are Born with More Mercury Than Desirable in Bloodstream
A Spanish study detects exposure to high doses of heavy metals in umbilical cord blood. The more fatty fish an expectant mother consumes, the greater the risk to her child.
El País: El 64% de los bebés nace con más mercurio en sangre del deseable
Rafael Méndez reporting from Madrid July 2, 2011

The mercury in fish is passed from mothers to their babies. According to a Spanish study, performed from May 2004 to August 2008 and published in a scientific journal this April, 64% of umbilical cords from 1,883 births in Valencia, Barcelona, Asturias, and Guipúzcoa had more mercury than is considered safe by the US’s Environmental Protection Agency. This statistic is made less relevant because there isn’t an international standard for mercury, and according to the standards of other agencies a lesser number of the cords would be contaminated, but it is a warning about the consumption of swordfish and red tuna during pregnancy. Even so Ferran Ballester, epidemiologist and one of the directors of the study, wrote: “Eating fish during pregnancy is healthy.”

Mercury, a neurotoxin which is appearing in fish because of the chemical contamination of the oceans, has worried scientists for years. The Infancy and the Environment group and researchers from different groups and universities throughout the country began the study, the most ambitious yet in Spain about the exposure of fetuses to toxins like PCBs, pesticides, air contaminants, and heavy metals (mercury among them) in 2004.

2,505 pregnant volunteers were recruited in four provinces. Blood from 1,883 umbilical cords was analyzed, an enormous sample. The study concluded that 64% of the children had been exposed through their mothers to more than 5.8 micrograms of methylmercury per liter of blood (the EPA’s upper safety limit). By region, 75.6% of cords in Asturias were above the standard, 49.1% in Sabadell, 68.4% in Valencia, and 64.7% Guipúzcoa. Yet Ballester qualified that “there is not an internationally admitted mercury standard. The WHO’s limit is higher, and if we used that, the number of babies considered to be in danger would be lower.”

In any case, besides the data, the study explains that exposure to the metal comes from the ingestion of fish by the mother. Mothers in Asturias and Valencia, regions with more pescatarian diets, showed slightly higher levels of contamination.

“The principal contributor to methylmercury levels in umbilical cord blood is maternal ingestion of fatty fish,” the text, published in the journal Environment International in February, concludes. Ballester insists that he doesn’t invent to cause alarm: “Eating fish during pregnancy is healthy. It has Omega 3, iodine, phosphorous, and proteins. Avoiding large fish which accumulate mercury, like swordfish and red tuna, is enough. Even so, if you eat some, nothing will happen. There are still much graver risks, such as smoking.”

The researchers, from 12 different centers in Spain, including the Carlos III Health Institute of the Ministry of Health, concluded it would be ideal to reduce mercury contamination in the environment, as the United Nations Environment Programme requested in 2009.

The environmental NGO Oceana, which uncovered the existence of a confidental report from the government about mercury contamination, asked yesterday for “the immediate elimination” of an “obsolete” kind of technology that uses mercury to make bleach. According to the NGO, “In Spain there are eight plants that continue to use this technology,” and they have permission to continue doing so until 2020 because of a deferral of the initial deadline to change production methods.

Ecologists in Action and Workers’ Commissions are also among the organizations that have sounded alarms about the risk of mercury use.

Meanwhile, the recommendation by the Spanish Food Safety Agency that expectant mothers and small children not eat fish like red tuna and swordfish continues to stoke polemic. Yesterday, the Balfegó Group, one of the largest red tuna producers in the world, which also has farms in Tarragona, asked the Health Department to exclude red tuna from the blacklist. Balfegó argued that the government refused to give another report, whose results are still under a seal of confidentiality, to Oceana: in that one, dangerous mercury levels were not found in red tuna, but they were in swordfish, shortfin mako shark, and blue shark.

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