“Methylmercury (the organic form of mercury) is a known neurotoxin," says Elsie M. Sunderland, professor of aquatic science in the department of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "Exposure in adults has also been associated with negative effects on cardiovascular health, such as increased heart attacks in adult men.” Basically, that means it can pass the blood/brain barrier and interfere with your neurological system. Why is it typically more tied to moms-to-be? “The developing fetus is the most sensitive life stage for exposure to methylmercury, and that is why the safety standards like the reference dose from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are based on these health outcomes,” Sunderland says.
Even if you aren’t expecting, some studies show that consuming high-mercury fish on a regular basis (as in, say, three times a week for 10 years) can have catastrophic neurological side effects over time. Celia Chen, a research professor in the department of biological sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire and the lead author of the recent report Sources to Seafood: Mercury Pollution in the Marine Environment notes that while the studies are not consistent, mercury has been shown to decrease fine motor speed and dexterity, memory and response ability, and neuropsychiatric symptoms of depression, anxiety, and compulsive behavior in women.
So, how does mercury even get in the fish in the first place? The two biggest sources of mercury globally are coal-fired power plants and artisanal gold mining (mostly occurring in developing countries). “Mercury is a byproduct of both of these — it’s cast out into the atmosphere, transported around the globe, and then ends up in the oceans (and the fish we eat), or is discharged from sources to rivers from gold mining and industrial sources,” says Chen. Next, it gets into lakes, estuaries and the ocean, where this inorganic mercury is converted into methylmercury by microorganisms.
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