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UC Berkeley researcher discusses key findings in new EPA report on environmental risks to children's health

– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), released an important report on Monday, Feb. 24, addressing childhood exposure to environmental contaminants. The report is the second edition of America's Children and the Environment, and it addresses the issue of mercury exposure for the first time.

Amy D. Kyle, an environmental health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, was one of the report's five authors. Below, Kyle answers questions about mercury exposure and how to avoid it.

Q: Monday's report includes data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showing that 8 percent of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have blood mercury levels that are higher than recommended by the EPA. How concerned should we be with these findings?

Kyle: I think it's a significant concern. Exposure to mercury in the womb, even at very low doses, can cause serious developmental and learning disorders in children. Scientists have learned a lot about the effects of exposures to mercury in the womb in the last five years, and this information is beginning to trickle out to the public.

Q: So what can consumers do to avoid exposure to mercury?

Kyle: In the U.S., though mercury is mainly released into the air, people are exposed primarily by eating fish that contains mercury. Mercury accumulates in the food chain and reaches elevated concentrations in some kinds of fish. Fish vary in how much mercury they contain. Older and larger fish, for example, tend to have higher concentrations.

People can reduce their exposures by checking to see if their state or local health departments have issued any advisories for sport-caught fish and by following any advice to avoid certain species. The FDA has also warned women who are or may become pregnant against eating certain species of commercial fish, including swordfish, king mackerel and shark, and a number of states have issued advisories about canned tuna.

Q: A few days ago, the news media reported that major grocery chains, such as Safeway and Albertson's, have started to post consumer warnings in California for mercury in fresh tuna, swordfish and shark in response to a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, under Proposition 65. Do you think that will scare consumers away from fish altogether?

Kyle: I hope not. Eating fish is very beneficial both for women who may become pregnant and for people at risk for heart disease. The problem is that it is hard to find out which fish are lower in mercury.

Putting consumer warning labels on contaminated fish would be a step in the right direction. It would be helpful to have better information about which fish are low in mercury as well.

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To download a PDF file of the America's Children and the Environment report, go to: http://www.epa.gov/envirohealth/children/. The EPA press release announcing the report's release can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/newsroom/headline_022403.htm.