Mercury (Hg), a heavy metal, is widespread and persistent in the environment. Exposure to hazardous mercury levels can cause permanent neurologic and kidney impairment. The U.S. population primarily is exposed to methylmercury by eating fish. Methylmercury exposures to women of childbearing age are of great concern because a fetus is highly susceptible to adverse effects.1 Elevated levels of mercury are not considered safe for anyone but especially not for women and children.
Mercury is a highly toxic element; there is no known safe level of exposure. Ideally, neither children nor adults should have any mercury in their bodies because it provides no physiological benefit.2 So technically any levels of mercury are considered high and should not be found in humans.
Why are elevated mercury levels a concern in Pacific Island countries? Is it more of a concern than women in other countries?
Mercury is a pollutant of global concern. It is of extra concern in countries where the population consumes fish on a regular basis and where high levels of environmental sources of mercury are found. Pacific Island countries are in both of these categories.
Women of childbearing age living in four Pacific Island countries have elevated levels of mercury in their bodies. Researchers hypothesized that the Pacific Island participants may have a higher mercury body burden than other locations due to their relatively high consumption of predatory fish species shown to have elevated mercury concentrations in previous studies.3 These predatory fish consume other fish which in turn raises the mercury content in the fish cooked and consumed.