How My Mercury Level Hit Double the Safety Limit

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Justin Guariglia / National Geographic / Getty Images

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Disturbingly, there's no way to remove mercury before we eat fish because it binds to their muscle. And when we digest that muscle, the mercury load stays with us. Still, the answer is not to abandon seafood because of mercury fears; that would almost certainly leave you worse off, because you'd lose the cardiovascular benefits of eating fish. "For the general population, there is convincing evidence that the cardiovascular benefits greatly outweigh the risks," says Harvard medical professor Dariush Mozaffarian, co-author of one of the most comprehensive studies on fish consumption. "Eating a variety of fish and other seafood at least twice per week, preferably oily and dark-meat fish, is a great target."

Whatever your risk tolerance, the good news is that you can rapidly reduce your mercury levels through some simple changes in your diet while still eating plenty of seafood. Instead of chunky white tuna, you can choose light tuna, which has lower mercury levels, or try seafood like salmon, pollock or shrimp. Eating lower on the marine food chain — think sardines and mussels — is a good way to minimize mercury exposure too — and it also happens to be more sustainable for sea life. "Before I got pregnant, I lowered my mercury level by 70% in approximately two months by changing my habits while still eating seafood twice a week," Liguori says.

That's a relief — though if I end up getting pregnant, I will have bigger health worries than my mercury level. But it's wrong that anyone should be put at any risk, however uncertain, simply for eating seafood. Instead, we need to stop mercury pollution at its source. That's what the EPA is finally poised to do: after years of delay, the agency recently proposed the first regulations for mercury emissions from coal plants, along with arsenic and other toxic pollutants. Those rules would cut mercury emissions by about 91%, along with emissions of arsenic, chromium and other toxic pollutants. According to the EPA, the new rules would also help limit fine particulate pollution, which would prevent some 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, in addition to reducing mercury contamination. (Fine particulate pollution has been linked to heart disease.) The utility industry is expected to fight the regulations, which would cost about $10 billion a year to implement but could provide as much as $100 billion a year in public health benefits. "People might think that coal-plant pollution is something that only affects you if you live right next to one," says Hitt of the Sierra Club. "But the mercury issue shows we can all be affected by coal." And I've got the test results to prove it.

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