Cautions About Mercury Consumption
By Ernie Florence and Rebecca Stanfield, and Meg Carroll
If you're like most Americans, you probably try hard to incorporate heart-healthy sources of protein in your diet, by, for example, eating fish. However, mercury pollution threatens to render this key part of our diet too dangerous for children, pregnant women and women who may become pregnant.
A neurotoxin, mercury can destroy, damage or impair the functioning of human nerve tissue. Mercury passes easily from a mother to her child through the placenta and breast milk. Fetal mercury exposure affects the developing brain, causing vision and hearing difficulties, delays in the development of motor skills and language acquisition, and later, lowered IQ, problems with memory and attention deficits. These developmental problems may translate into learning difficulties once children are in school, resulting in lifelong consequences.
Because Illinois is home to several large, older, coal-burning power plants, our state's power industry emits more mercury than some other states. In recognition of mercury's danger to public health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and EPA issue updates on a webpage periodically to provide advice about the consumption of fish that may contain mercury. The agencies have concluded that the following people should eat more fish that is lower in mercury for important developmental and health benefits:
- Women of childbearing age (about 16-49 years old)
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Young children (https://www.epa.gov/fish-tech/2017-epa-fda-advice-about-eating-fish-and-shellfish).
To reduce the prevalence of mercury contamination as a factor in learning disabilities, we must reduce mercury in fish; the only way to do that is to reduce the amount of mercury released into our environment.
In 2002, the Learning Disabilities Association of America created the health children project to:
- raise awareness of environmental factors, particularly toxic chemicals, that can harm brain development, contributing to learning disabilities and behavior disorders.
- promote policies and practices to prevent toxic chemical exposures, especially among pregnant women and children.
- build a nationwide network of lda members working to protect children's health and reduce toxic exposures that may lead to learning disabilities in current and future generations.
According to a 2011 report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 6 American children were diagnosed with a learning developmental disability in 2008. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that environmental factors, including toxic chemicals, cause or contribute to at least a quarter of learning and developmental disabilities in American children. In recent decades, scientists have learned that the developing human brain is much more susceptible to toxic substances than the adult brain, and that certain chemicals can have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe. For more information, go to https://healthychildrenproject.org/.
Ernie Florence is past president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois and Rebecca Stanfield was director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy organization. Meg Carroll is professor of education at Saint Xavier University.