July 27, 2012
Summer anglers reminded to consult revised state guidelines before eating fish caught in Minnesota waters
Recent study raises new concerns about whether message of guidelines is reaching women
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is again reminding anglers that they can reduce potential health risks by following the state's current advice on safely consuming fish.
The state's fish consumption guidelines are updated annually, and are produced jointly by MDH, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. This year's edition includes guidelines for limiting consumption of specific sizes and species of fish from 1272 lakes and 93 river fishing sites statewide. The guidelines are designed to help people limit their exposure to safe levels for contaminants like PCBs, perfluorochemicals, and mercury.
In addition to providing fishing-site-specific advice in the guidelines, MDH also offers more general advice for avoiding exposure to contaminants in fish, regardless of where they were taken.
Pat McCann, who heads the fish advisory program at MDH, emphasized that the guidelines are not intended to discourage the eating of fish taken from Minnesota waters.
"Fish are highly nutritious, and they can be an important part of a healthy diet," McCann said. "The purpose of the guidelines is simply to help people consume fish safely. In pregnant women, eating fish promotes healthy brain and eye development in the fetus. We encourage women to eat fish, while taking steps to reduce their potential exposure to contaminants."
The importance of safe fish consumption practices was underscored by a study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and completed last year by MDH. In that study, 1,465 newborns in the Lake Superior Basin – including 139 infants from Wisconsin and 200 from Michigan – were tested for mercury in their blood. The study found that eight percent of the newborns had mercury levels higher than those recommended as safe by EPA.
Because researchers did not know the identity of the infants from whom the samples were taken, it wasn't possible to directly link the high mercury levels to eating fish. However, mercury levels were higher for Minnesota infants than for infants born in the other two states – 10 percent of Minnesota newborns exceeded the EPA guideline. Some studies have reported that Minnesotans are more likely to eat locally-caught fish than residents of the other states.
Mercury levels were also generally more likely to be elevated for infants born during the summer – when people are more likely to be consuming locally caught sport fish.
MDH is currently seeking a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant from EPA to help address issues raised in the 2011 study.
The grant would be used to develop better strategies for screening and educating women throughout the Great Lakes region so that they can reduce mercury exposure for themselves and their newborns. As part of the proposed grant activities, physicians affiliated with the Sawtooth Mountain Clinics in Grand Marais and Grand Portage would ask consenting female patients of childbearing age a number of screening questions about their fish consumption and test their blood for mercury. That part of the project would assess the usefulness of the screening questions in predicting blood mercury levels.
The women would also be counseled about safe fish consumption practices, and later have their blood tested again, to see if the education provided through the program had any impact on their mercury exposure.
The Grand Portage Chippewa Tribe is also a partner with MDH on the proposed screening and education effort.
A decision by EPA on the grant proposal is pending. "The potential impact on pregnant women and their infants is one of our biggest concerns about potential exposure to mercury and other contaminants in fish," McCann said. "We're hopeful that EPA will continue to support our efforts, and we can further reduce the risk of mercury exposure for a potentially vulnerable group of Minnesotans."
Current Minnesota fish consumption guidelines, with information about specific fishing locations, are available at:
General "safe-eating" guidelines, for fish taken from any location, are at: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/fish/eating/safeeating.html.
A "lake-finder" Web page and mobile app, which can used to access fish consumption advice and other information about specific lakes, is available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at:
Fish consumption advisory program