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The Mercury-in-Fish Scare: How Safe Is All That Seafood You’re Eating?

Fish is a go-to protein sources for bodybuilders and other athletes, but rumors swirl that mercury makes eating fish unsafe. Here’s the truth.

Bodybuilders and fitness models rely on well-balanced diets that include a variety of fish and seafood to help attain their physical goals. Many types of fish and seafood are extremely low in fat, making them an appropriate, high-quality source of animal protein. Even fattier cuts of fish offer benefits for general health and athletic performance because they contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

A diet that includes fish and seafood is good for bodybuilders and models. Evidence also shows that eating fish can promote a healthy pregnancy, enhance brain and eye development of the fetus, aid thinking and learning during childhood, and slow mental decline as people age10. Fish also provides a significant source of vitamin D and other valuable minerals, including selenium, iodine, magnesium, iron and copper.8

But there's a catch: All seafood contains mercury, a naturally occurring chemical element that can be harmful to humans. With the threat of mercury in fish and seafood, do athletes need to be concerned? Let's fish for answers to some frequently asked questions on the subject.

Q
Why the heck are there traces of methylmercury in nearly all fish and seafood, anyway?

Mercury in the ocean can be naturally occurring from environmental sources1 such as mineral deposits, underwater vents and volcanoes. Manmade sources include industrial pollution1, most notably from coal-fueled power plant emissions. Coal contains mercury as a natural contaminant, and the process of burning it to generate electricity can release mercury vapors into the atmosphere. Mercury then falls from the air into lakes, rivers, streams and oceans through rain, snow and runoff.3

Microorganisms in the water aid in the transformation of mercury into toxic methylmercury.2 Methylmercury is absorbed by algae, which is in turn eaten by fish and other organisms throughout the food chain.

Why do some types of fish contain higher mercury levels than others?
one fish, two fish

Larger and longer-living fish higher in the food chain accumulate greater concentrations of mercury because they consume a large volume of prey containing lower mercury concentrations.2

Small, short-living fish such as salmon, cod and trout have low levels of mercury. Large, long-living predators such as shark, swordfish, golden bass, king mackerel, and tilefish have the highest mercury levels.4

What are the concerns about mercury exposure from consuming fish?

The most commonly-eaten species available in North America (such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, and pollock) are generally low in mercury and pose little risk to most people.10 According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the risk of mercury exposure from eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern for most people.1

But even a slight risk warrants attention; high levels of methylmercury can potentially harm human health.8 It's readily absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the human body, including the brain.8

Elevated MethyMercury Exposure
What are the specific health risks from excessive mercury exposure?

Very high methylmercury exposure resulting from accidents (eg. Minimata), or prolonged high intakes of fish species containing high levels of mercury for more than 10 years can result in sensory-motor symptoms in adults which are typically reversible when the mercury exposure is reduced.10 Bear in mind the severity of these health effects largely depends upon the magnitude and duration of the methylmercury exposure.8

Methylmercury can be particularly harmful to pregnant women and can impact the nervous system during normal fetal development and childhood.5 That's why pregnant and nursing women, and women trying to get pregnant, infants, and children should limit their intake of mercury.5

Very high methylmercury exposure or regularly ingesting large amounts of fish containing high levels of mercury for more than 10 years can result in sensory-motor symptoms in adults. Fortunately, these symptoms typically reverse when the mercury exposure is reduced.10

What do government authorities have to say about this?

In March 2004, the FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced their revised consumer advisory on fish and mercury consumption. Their recommendations included the following for pregnant women, women trying to become pregnant and young children:

recommendations

The same recommendations should be followed when feeding fish and shellfish to young children, except smaller portion sizes should be served.1

Can I reduce my mercury exposure by cleaning and cooking my fish?

Nope. Cooking or cleaning seafood does not reduce its mercury levels.3,6

Does it matter where I buy my fish or cast my line?

Methylmercury contamination varies widely from region to region.5 The FDA and EPA recommend you check state advisories about the safety of fish caught by individuals in local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces per week of fish you catch from local waters, but do not consume any other fish during that week.1,5

In Canada, The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducts routine monitoring of the mercury levels in numerous fish species at fish processing plants before the fish are taken to commercial markets.8 A summary of this data is provided in Health Canada's health risk/benefit assessment document on mercury in fish.

shark

Which type of tuna should I consume and why?

Tuna mercury levels can vary depending upon the type of tuna and where it was caught. Tuna steaks and canned albacore tuna generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna.3 This makes sense considering albacore is higher on the food chain than the smaller tuna species that are processed for light tuna.

Unlike albacore, "light" tuna refers to any one of the following types of tuna: skipjack, bluefin, yellowfin or tongol.8 Skipjack is the best choice among these light tuna options for lowering your risk of mercury exposure.9

Canned tuna provides a convenient, portable and inexpensive source of protein. Canned tuna packed in water contains a higher omega-3 fat content than oil-packed tuna.9 When buying canned albacore, it's good to choose a water-packed premium wild Pacific albacore from a reputable supplier that tests mercury levels. Although more expensive, specialty brands of canned tuna offer more omega-3 fatty acids, more sustainable fishing methods and higher-quality production methods.

What are fish oil supplements, and do they contain mercury contamination?

Long chain omega-3 fatty acids, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), known as "fish oil," has been reported to have favorable neurological and cardiovascular effects that outweigh the neurological risks of mercury toxicity.10

Purified fish oil supplements offer omega-3 fatty acids with lower levels of contaminants.3 Fish oil capsules contain 20-to-80 percent of EPA and DHA by weight, little to no mercury, and variable levels of PCBs and dioxins.10 The exposure to PCBs and dioxins is low given the small amounts of fish oil consumed.10

Supplements can provide an alternative option for those who do not wish to consume fish. Test results for various fish oils can be reviewed on the International Fish Oil Standards Website.

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Take me to the bottom line. Should I stop eating fish and other seafood because of its mercury content?

In a word, no: Don't eliminate seafood from your diet. The benefits of modest fish consumption (1-2 servings per week) outweigh the risks among adults and women of childbearing age (excepting a few selected species of fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish).10 Evidence also suggests that fish consumption and the associated intake of EPA and DHA from fish can help maintain healthy heart function.

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. By making informed choices about which types of fish you consume and how often, you can reap the health benefits while minimizing mercury exposure.

*For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit FDA's Food Safety website.

*For further information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's Fish Advisory website or contact your State or Local Health Department. For information on EPA's actions to control mercury, visit EPA's mercury website.1

References

  1. What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. March 2004 EPA and FDA Advice For: Women Who Might Become Pregnant Women Who Are Pregnant
Nursing Mothers
Young Children. www.fda.gov
  2. Learned, Nicole. Myths and Realities: The Fishy Truth about Mercury Toxicity. Faculty Peer Reviewed (NYU Langone Medical Center). December 17, 2011. www.clinicalcorrelations.org
  3. Methylmercury in seafood. Information and Education. © 2010 Whole Foods Market.
  4. Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB. Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA. 2006:296(15):1885-1899. jama.ama-assn.org
  5. Levenson CW and Axelrad D. Too much of a good thing? Update on fish consumption and mercury exposure. Nutrition Rev (2006) 64: 139-145. www.dmaxelrad.com
  6. Harris HH, Pickering IJ, George GN. The chemical form of mercury in fish. Science. 2003:301(5637):1203. ukpmc.ac.uk
  7. www.americanpregnancy.org
  8. Health Canada: Mercury in Fish: Questions and Answers: www.hc-sc.gc.ca
  9. What is the Best Tuna to Buy? whfoods.org
  10. Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB. Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA. 2006:296(15):1885-1899. jama.ama-assn.org
  11. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference-Release 18 (2005). Washington, DC: US Dept of Agriculture; 2006.

Related Articles

About The Author

Dr. Sara Solomon received her B.Sc. in Physical Therapy and her D.M.D. in 2001 and 2005 respectively. Learn more about this Oxygen Magazine success...

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gorana

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gorana

wow - I guess I have to reduce my weekly tuna intake..!!
:)

Article Rated:
May 23, 2012 11:52pm | report
 
PrimusPalus

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PrimusPalus

There might be a lot of guys upset by this who eat tuna DAILY, in multiple servings. I was like that in the military (getting dozens of cans from the store at a time).

May 24, 2012 12:36am | report
 
PieterCornelius

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PieterCornelius

I Guess I should stop eating a can a day

May 24, 2012 12:52am | report
 
DerekStauffer

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DerekStauffer

Good thing I think tuna tastes like cat food and almost never eat it

May 24, 2012 1:07am | report
 
akcrossfit

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akcrossfit

Aww ***** it abs are worth it

May 24, 2012 3:03am | report
 
Joedzilla

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Joedzilla

Nice article, bad thing is i love fish, and also i have to reduce my tuna week meals, which i like to eat quite a lot :-/

May 24, 2012 7:39am | report
 
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  • ht: 5'10"
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o3hundred

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o3hundred

Pfff, have been eating Tuna on a daily basis for the past 5-6 months. Did blood test 3 weeks ago, everything is fine.

May 24, 2012 12:21pm | report
 
jsmurray

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jsmurray

I eat 1-2 cans at least everyday and have since I was about 10 years old. I am 23 now and am doing perfectly fine.

May 24, 2012 1:20pm | report
 
fluid1

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fluid1

Honestly, you should recommend against ANY farmed fish. It's sad and disgusting to even see them on a list of "good" food.
For the tuna lovers- look up "American Tuna" it's line caught, and can be traced from can to boat. Seriously.

May 24, 2012 1:32pm | report
 
vkartikv

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vkartikv

I agree. I'm told that farmed salmon are fed corn and other items you don't typically see in a fish's diet. I'm all for wild alaskan salmon.

May 24, 2012 2:01pm | report
barmmy

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barmmy

My sisters husband was eating 3-5 cans of tuna a day. After a few months his personality began to change for the worse, my sister was actualy afraid of him! She was beginning to consider leaving him, he had become violent, over emotional, possessive, irrational. After googling various things she came across the information on mercury poisoning. She got him to stop eating it like a crazy mofo and he eventually calmed the **** down. He won't touch the stuff now.

May 24, 2012 1:34pm | report
 
Orsin

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Orsin

I eat Tuna every day and have done for years. I feel at risk from dying of boredom though ;-)

May 24, 2012 1:46pm | report
 
Virt1

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Virt1

Several years ago I used to rely on tinned tuna as a primary source of protein along with chicken. I ignored concerns until I worked out that I was consuming over 10x the amount of mercury deemed 'safe'. I also began getting problems with my sight which dissapeared once I reduced my intake of tuna. However, the most concerning thing, is that mercry can only leave your system through urine, and two and a half years ago I had cancer of the bladder, which I attribute to so much mercury having passed through the bladder. The doctors were baffled as to why it may have occured in someone my age who doesn't smoke but i firmly believe it was down to my intake of mercury.

May 24, 2012 1:59pm | report
 
RedSoxBrah

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RedSoxBrah

Tuna with mayo .... hnnng.

May 24, 2012 2:29pm | report
 
bXnatural

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bXnatural

everyone should see the documentary called "The Cove." It's about the dolphin and whale killing as well as all other fish in the food industry. It is scary that some countries in Asia clearly don't enforce the "mercury limit", which is the amount of mercury a food item can contain and be sold to general public, which includes in schools.

May 24, 2012 2:32pm | report
 
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

man... oh well...

May 24, 2012 3:00pm | report
 
RobTheReaper87

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RobTheReaper87

The only fish I like is Tilapia fillets and I only make them once instead of a chicken fillet. I do take fish oil supplements tho.

May 24, 2012 3:38pm | report
 
J009600

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J009600

Thats crazy.

May 24, 2012 6:45pm | report
 
richardtrotter

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richardtrotter

hmmm Sushi!!! from the Far East, Whats UP!!!!

May 24, 2012 7:49pm | report
 
Basketball22

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Basketball22

Interesting. I eat alot more than1-2 servings of fish a week. Good thing it's usually haddock or tilapia. At the end of the day i don't think it's a big deal. Alot of my relatives eat alot of fish their whole life and they were fine.

May 25, 2012 7:49am | report
 
SeaSteward

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SeaSteward

This is a very informative article. Clinicians on our advisory board commonly treat bodybuilders for mercury from excess tuna consumption. The non profit GotMercury has a calculator where you can enter your weight and fish consumption for several commonly eaten fish types, and determine your mercury dose. www.gotmercury.org

May 25, 2012 12:59pm | report
 
the3bosses

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the3bosses

What bothers me from these recent finding is the fact that countries like China and Japan's staple food consist of mainly fish?? They also have proven that most people in those countries suffer less from heart attacks then peeps in other countries. Why don't they start their studies there with people that consume mostly sushi, sashimi???? Then give us an article on what they find?

Nov 28, 2012 7:08am | report
 
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chumar47

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chumar47

very nice article as always

Apr 11, 2013 12:57am | report
 
tiaraorsea

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tiaraorsea

Wow....I eat 2-3 pieces of salmon each day...for a while now....I suppose I need to change it up.

Jun 29, 2013 6:36pm | report
 
rscherich

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rscherich

Sooo 2 cans a day for 7 days a week for 7 months isn't good!
This has just ruined my whole week. I haven't seen no issues with my temper or any of those other issues.

May 28, 2014 3:13pm | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 26 Comments

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