The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 fish meals (one fish meal = 6 ounces) a week. Fish and shellfish are important parts of a healthy diet and are an excellent source of protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids can help reduce the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and other chronic diseases. Omega 3 fatty acids are also important for brain and vision development.
Regrettably, some fish are contaminated with chemicals which may pose a risk to your health. The three primary contaminants are mercury, DDTs, and PCBs. Eating fish with chemicals such as mercury, DDTs, and PCBs do not make you sick right away, but these chemicals can build up in your body over time. Continuous low level exposure to contaminated fish can increase the risk of developing health problems. Health risks are higher for unborn children, infants, children less than 17 years old, breastfeeding women, pregnant women, and women who may become pregnant.
Mercury is an element that is naturally occurring and can accumulate in bodies of water. Mercury sources in the environment can come from industry discharges or natural sources. In water mercury is converted to methylmercury which is absorbed by fish as they feed. Frequent consumption of fish with methylmercury may affect developing brains and nervous systems of developing fetuses, infants, and children less than 17 years of age. Health risks include affects on the brain and nervous system, developmental impairments in attention, language, and memory. Adults may experience tingling in hands, feet, blurred vision, and kidney disorders. The United Stated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued a joint advisory recommending women who may become pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish at all because often these fish contain high levels of mercury. The FDA and EPA also recommend that people eat no more than two meals (12 ounces) a week of commercially caught fish and shellfish that contain lower levels of mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, scallops, pollock, and catfish. Canned albacore tuna (white tuna) has higher levels of mercury compared to canned light tuna, therefore it is recommended to eat no more than one serving a week (6 ounces) and no other fish should be eaten during that week. Follow the same advice when feeding fish to children, but serve smaller portions. Methylmercury builds up in all parts of the fish. Cooking methods do not minimize the amount of mercury you are exposed to. You must eat less fish suspected to contain high mercury levels to reduce exposure. For more information about the risks of mercury in fish consult the FDA web site www.cfsan.fda.gov or EPA website www.epa.gov/ost/fish.
DDTs and PCBs Health Effects
DDTs and PCBs health effects can include cancer, liver disease, effects on the immune system and reproductive problems. During pregnancy mothers can pass DDTs, PCBs, and mercury to their unborn child. These chemicals can affect growth and development of fetuses and children under 17 years of age, therefore women who are planning to be pregnant, pregnant women, and children less than 17 years of age should be especially careful. White Croaker (also called tomcod or kingfish) caught off the Los Angeles County and Orange County coasts have high levels of DDTs and PCBs. They have high levels of DDTs and PCBs because white croaker feed from the bottom of the ocean where the contaminants are located. White croaker is also a fatty fish and both DDTs and PCBs build up in fatty tissues of animals and humans. To protect your health, do not eat white croaker caught in the red zone. Fish caught in the yellow zone are generally safer to eat.
Since DDTs and PCBs builds up in fat, you can reduce your exposure to chemicals by removing and throwing away the head, guts, skin, organs and dark areas of the fish and cooking only the filet. Bake, broil, steam or grill the fish, letting the juices drip away.
Methylmercury builds up in all parts of the fish. Mercury can not be cooked out of the fish. Eating less fish suspected to have high levels of mercury is the only way to reduce your exposure.
Follow local fish advisories before fishing in the red or yellow zones, in local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.If no advice is available for the fish you catch, limit your consumption to one fish meal a week and do not eat other fish that week.You can check local advisories by calling the Long Beach Health Department at (562)570-4494, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment at (916) 327-7316, or visiting www.oehha.ca.gov/fish.html, or www.pvsfish.org.
For more information regarding fish contamination contact:
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA National advice on Mercury in Freshwater Fish
EPA Chemical Specific Fact Sheets
Should I Eat the Fish I Catch?
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA)
US Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA)
Fish Contamination Education Collaborative (FCEC)