New efforts to cut mercury exposure from fish in Great Lakes regionThe EPA targets Great Lakes region women and children who eat fish.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced four new projects totaling $3.6 million for work designed to reduce the risk of exposure to mercury for people, especially women and children, who eat fish from the Great Lakes.
The grants, funded by Congress through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, will go to state health departments in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Cornell University in New York will receive $600,000 for a project to reduce toxic exposure among urban anglers throughout the Great Lakes Basin.
In Minnesota, the state will use the money to convince women along the North Shore of Lake Superior to be more careful of what and how much fish they eat after experts found local fish probably are a major source of toxic mercury in their diets — mercury that is passed on to their unborn and newborn children.
High levels of mercury can cause neurological problems in adults and children and developmental problems in unborn fetuses.
Patricia McCann, research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the new money “will help achieve reductions in mercury exposures from fish consumption in women of childbearing age in the North Shore region of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes Basin overall.”
Minnesota will test the effectiveness of “user-friendly” information aimed at changing fish-consumption habits. The effort will expand on an ongoing project to reach out to women of childbearing age in the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who live in Cook County to warn them about mercury exposure.
Henry Anderson, state health officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said his office will use the money “to expand our partnerships with clinicians and health-care systems, and better-inform study participants about how to balance the (health) benefits of eating sport-caught fish with information on contaminants.”
The state will help health-care clinics near the south shore of Lake Superior develop a screening tool to assess patients’ risks of exposure and to test the mercury levels of patients who frequently eat Lake Superior fish.
Duluth-based Essentia Health is participating in the effort through its clinics along both shores of the big lake.
Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 director, said the new round of funding is a direct response to a study released in February 2012 by the Minnesota Department of Health that showed one of every 10 babies born in the Lake Superior region of Minnesota has unsafe levels of toxic mercury in his or her bloodstream.
Researchers looked at blood samples from 1,465 newborns in the Lake Superior area of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from 2008-2010 for the study, which was paid for by the federal EPA and Minnesota Department of Health.
The results showed the highest levels of babies affected in Minnesota, at 10 percent, with 3 percent in Wisconsin and none in Michigan. Across the three-state region, 8 percent of babies tested had levels above the 5.8 micrograms per liter that the EPA considers safe. Some children tested showed levels as high as 211 micrograms per liter.
The report said the mercury exposure probably came late in pregnancy, close to the time of birth, and probably from the mothers eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methyl mercury. Other sources could be dental fillings or broken thermometers.
There was no difference in mercury levels between male and female babies, but babies born in the summer had higher levels of mercury, indicating local fish are the problem. Health officials said a mother eating as few as two meals per week of fish high in mercury could cause newborn blood levels to reach unacceptable levels. That includes large trout, walleye or northern from Northland lakes or yellowfin tuna, shark, mackerel or orange roughy from the ocean.
The state warns women and children not to eat any walleye more than 20 inches or northern pike more than 30 inches. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan already have posted advisories for people — especially pregnant women and children — to limit the size and number of meals they eat of fish caught from many lakes and rivers. But experts say that information may not be reaching enough people.