Parenting Australia

Effects of Mercury on Your Unborn Child

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Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water and food. Most people are exposed to mercury via food. Fish take up mercury from streams and oceans as they feed. This mercury is in the more toxic, methylmercury form. It binds to their tissue proteins (such as muscle). Food processing, preparation and cooking techniques don’t significantly reduce the amount of mercury in fish.

Babies developing in the uterus seem to be most vulnerable to the effects of mercury on their nervous systems. The mercury may slow their development in the early years. Research is ongoing, but women should be selective about the kinds and amounts of fish they eat during pregnancy.

  • Avoid fish with high levels of mercury (shark, ray, swordfish, barramundi, gemfish, orange roughy, ling and southern bluefin tuna).
  • Limit other fish, such as tuna steaks, to one portion per week or two 140g cans of tuna per week (smaller tuna contain less mercury).

However, there is no restriction on the amount of salmon, including canned salmon, which is eaten. Yummy!

Some fish contain more mercury than others.

Fish that contain higher levels of mercury include:

  • Shark
  • Ray
  • Swordfish
  • Barramundi
  • Gemfish
  • Orange roughy
  • Ling
  • Southern bluefin tuna.

Fish with lower mercury levels include:

  • Shellfish including prawns, lobsters and oysters
  • Salmon
  • Canned tuna.

Fish as part of the diet

Fish is an important part of a healthy diet. Some of the health benefits of fish include that it is:

  • High in protein
  • Low in saturated fat
  • High in unsaturated fat
  • High in omega-3 oils.

For healthy adults and children, mercury from most fish sold in Australia is not a health risk, when fish is consumed as part of a normal diet. However, fish with high levels of mercury, like shark (flake), should probably not be eaten more than once a week.

Mercury and the unborn baby

Unborn babies are at increased risk from mercury. The mercury in fish can lead to raised mercury levels in the mother. This mercury can be passed on through the placenta to her developing baby.

The foetus appears to be most sensitive to the effects of mercury during the third and fourth months of a pregnancy. The effects on the brain and nervous system may not be noticed until developmental milestones - such as walking and talking - are delayed. Memory, language and attention span may also be affected.

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