May 8, 2017
FISH project reduces mercury in women on the Shore
Women choose to eat fish
Increased efforts to improve advice to women about eating fish are yielding positive results for the health of women on the North Shore.
Women involved in a follow-up group to a major project aimed at reducing mercury in women through changes in fish consumption were found to have decreased mercury levels in their blood, but they didn’t lower their consumption of healthy, low-mercury fish.
The Fish are Important to Superior Health (FISH) project started after a 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) showed that 10 percent of newborns tested in the North Shore – Arrowhead region had mercury above levels of concern in their blood. Too much mercury can cause lasting problems with understanding and learning.
The study results spurred a collaboration among Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, Grand Portage Health Service, North Shore Health, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Trust Lands and MDH to reduce mercury exposure in women in the area and pilot an in-clinic screening for high mercury exposure. Nearly 500 women from Cook County, Grand Portage and the surrounding area participated in the FISH Project.
Participants provided information about which fish they ate and how often they ate fish. They also had a blood sample analyzed for mercury and healthy fatty acids. They received information about healthy diets that included which type (species) of fish to eat and how often they can eat fish.
Women in the FISH Project reported eating more fish than women nationally. They also had higher fatty acids levels and blood mercury levels, but about the same percentage of women in the project as nationally (3 percent) had mercury levels above the level of concern. Mercury levels were lowest in blood collected in the spring and highest in fall samples. Results from FISH support the findings of the 2011 study.
An important finding from the project is that women did not stop eating fish as a result of the project. Studies have shown that fish can provide important nutrients that help fetuses and babies develop, as long as they are low in mercury and other contaminants. The fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in fish are also important for adults.
“Fish and fishing is our history and a strong part of the culture of the communities along the North Shore,” said Rita Plourde, CEO of Sawtooth Mountain Clinic. “Our board of directors and staff appreciate any opportunity to improve the care of our patients and the health of our communities. Together with our patients, we wholeheartedly agreed to do whatever was needed to educate and ultimately reduce mercury exposure in women who are or may become pregnant, thereby reducing mercury levels in future babies. Now we know we can eat fish wisely and give birth to healthy babies!”
Some of the women in the FISH project were asked to participate in a follow-up clinic visit six months after their initial visit. Changes at the follow-up were positive: the project did not cause women to eat less low-mercury fish, and fatty acid levels did not change. In fact, many women said they ate more fish. Mercury levels had declined in the follow up group and the participants with elevated mercury reduced their consumption of fish species shown to contribute most to higher mercury exposure.
The FISH project clinics are now including screening for high mercury in future prenatal visits. Community education and WIC visits will include information about choosing which fish to eat and how often. More information on the project is at FISH Project.
The goals of the FISH project are aligned with a new campaign launched today by MDH and HealthPartners. The goal of this new campaign is to equip women who are or may become pregnant with the information they need to choose the right fish to eat.
“We want women and children to eat fish. The benefits outweigh risks if they choose fish low in mercury and other contaminants,” said Pat McCann, research scientist for MDH.
The campaign highlights the health benefits of eating fish before and during pregnancy and the importance of choosing the right fish to reduce exposure to mercury or other contaminants.
Based on findings from the FISH project and other research, a brochure and ChooseYourFish.org were launched to reach more women and families and make it easier for them to follow MDH’s fish consumption guidelines. The new website (ChooseYourFish.org) provides easy access to information on the web and on mobile devices. Both the brochures and website describe how often different types (species) of fish can be eaten to provide safe yet beneficial meals. The website also features simple recipes, videos and tips for selecting and cooking fish. Versions of the brochures were designed for the North Shore and Grand Portage communities and will be distributed by FISH Project partners.
These efforts were supported in part through funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. A video – "New Information for Women to Choose the Best Fish" (YouTube) – highlights the key points of the new campaign.
MDH gives fish consumption recommendations for pregnant women, women who could become pregnant and children under age 15 (PDF), as well as for men, boys age 15 and over and women not planning to become pregnant (PDF). In general, men, boys 15 years and older and women who are not and will not become pregnant can eat fish about 3 times more often than the guidelines for pregnant women and younger children.
To learn more about MDH’s recommendations, visit Fish Consumption Guidance.
Grand Portage Health Service
Sawtooth Mountain Clinic