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Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans

A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize the Public’s Health

Executive Summary

Benefits of Fish Consumption Extensive scientific research has documented the numerous health, social, cultural and economic benefits of eating fish. Fish is an excellent source of lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. A balanced diet that includes fish can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Fish is also an important part of a healthy diet for pregnant and nursing women, and young children as the omega-3 fatty acids in fish improve maternal nutrition and brain development in unborn and young children. Furthermore, many Alaska Native people have a strong reliance on fish as part of their traditional way of life and subsistence diet.

Risks of Fish Consumption Fish can contain environmental contaminants they pick up from the water or sediments they live in, or the food they eat. Concerns about the health risks of contaminants have prompted many states, and several federal agencies, to advise the public to limit consumption of fish. Worldwide, the most notable fish contaminants are mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Mercury is a toxic metal that can damage the developing brain. Too much mercury may affect how children behave, learn, think and solve problems later in life. Thus, babies in the womb, nursing babies, and young children are at greatest risk for adverse health effects from mercury exposure. National studies have shown that all fish contain some mercury, with varying concentrations based on species, location, age, and other factors. POPs, which include polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and organochlorine pesticides, are a group of toxic chemicals that do not degrade very rapidly in the environment or in the body. Adverse health effects that have been associated with POPs exposure include hormone disruption, learning and behavior changes, immune system suppression, and cancer. POPs exposures from consumption of Alaska fish are very low, and have never been found to cause adverse human health effects.

Monitoring in Alaska To evaluate the safety of Alaska seafood, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) monitor contaminant levels in fish and in human seafood consumers. ADEC began a comprehensive Fish Monitoring Program in 2001 to analyze a wide variety of chemical contaminants in fish from Alaska, while DHSS began a Statewide Maternal Hair Mercury Biomonitoring Program in July 2002 to monitor the levels of mercury in the hair of pregnant Alaskans. Eligibility for this program has since been expanded to include all Alaskan women of childbearing age.

Monitoring Results Current data from Alaska’s Fish Monitoring Program demonstrate a wide range of mercury tissue concentrations among the 23 species of Alaska fish sampled. Most species of Alaska fish—including all five wild Alaska salmon species—contained very low mercury levels that are not of health concern. However, a small number of Alaska fish species had high enough mercury levels to warrant recommendations for women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children to limit consumption of those fish species.

Of 359 women of childbearing age from 51 Alaskan communities tested as part of Alaska’s ongoing Statewide Mercury Biomonitoring Program during 2002–2006, none had hair mercury levels of clinical or public health concern as a result of eating Alaska fish.

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