Are you an avid podcast listener? Then perhaps you’ve tuned into S-Town, the white-hot podcast about John B. McLemore and the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. At the risk of totally digressing off-topic, the subject of mercury poisoning is touched upon repeatedly throughout the series and cited as a possible cause of some of McLemore’s more erratic behavior. While he repeatedly exposed himself to mercury through more technical methods – and the levels of exposure were much higher – it had me thinking: What role does mercury exposure play in our day-to-day lives?
This question is particularly pertinent for me; I am currently pregnant and ongoing, regular mercury exposure to a growing fetus can be quite harmful – producing neurological and development defects. The source of most of our mercury exposure? The foods we eat, particularly seafood. Given I’m a big fish fan, this was scary news. Are you concerned, too? Here’s what you need to know about mercury and seafood:
It’s an environmental issue. Sadly, our exposure to mercury is growing because of environmental pollution. In short, burning waste and coal causes this metal to be released into the air; every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so mercury then falls back into the earth, often settling in our oceans, lakes and streams. And this isn’t a concentrated issue: All 50 states have issued mercury advisories and as of 2010, 18 million lake acres and approximately 1.4 million river miles were covered by some type of consumption advisory.
Predatory fish are those highest in mercury. Given that mercury is found in our waterways, it’s no surprise that fish are adversely affected. In particular, predatory fish – such as shark, swordfish, ahi tuna, mackerel, marlin, tilefish and orange roughy – contain the highest levels of mercury, as their exposure amplifies as they consume other fish.
Pregnant women need to be the most cautious. While we all need to watch our mercury intake from the aforementioned fish (read: don’t have swordfish for dinner every single night), pregnant women are particularly at risk. Not only should you avoid eating these fish during pregnancy, if you’re considering getting pregnant you should ease up on the consumption of such food, as methylmercury can accumulate in your bloodstream over time.
Don’t freak out. I read all of these things about mercury after I had some mindless bites of my husband’s ahi tuna recently and basically lost my mind. But, really, I rarely did (and don’t) eat that varietal of tuna, and predatory fish are not and were not a regular part of my diet. The adverse risks significantly grow with steady, regular exposure, so simply be mindful of your consumption – and reduce it altogether when expecting. Plus, remember that other cultures – particularly the Japanese – eat a diet loaded in raw fish, including mackerel and ahi tuna – and continue to do so regardless of being pregnant. Furthermore, many fish – such as salmon and tilapia – are great sources of omega-3s, which are amazing for your growing baby and for you, regardless if you're pregnant. So, when it comes to mercury: be smart, be cautious but also be realistic. Which is pretty good life advice anyway, right?