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Pregnant Moms Getting Fishy Advice

Fishy Warnings

WebMD Feature

Much of the fish you eat is contaminated with mercury, a toxic element that finds its way from factories and power plants into rivers, lakes, and oceans. This has become a major public health issue in the U.S., but one that's as murky as the depths from which fisherman raise their catch.

Studies have shown that eating plenty of fish is healthy for pregnant women and their babies. But mercury can harm the developing brain of a baby whose mother eats too much contaminated fish, possibly causing learning disabilities and other neurological problems. Scientists know that for a fact. What's not clear, however, is exactly how much mercury is dangerous, and which fish pregnant women should be warned about.

Last year, the FDA put out an advisory to pregnant women, telling them not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because samples of these fish had shown dangerously high levels of mercury contamination.

But instead of thanking the FDA for the kind advice, environmental activists and consumer watchdogs filleted the agency for failing to mention tuna -- arguably the most popular seafood in the U.S. Tuna has mercury in it. It doesn't have as much as the four fish mentioned in the advisory, but it has enough to raise concerns for many about how much a pregnant woman should eat.

Profits Over Public Health?

In February of this year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research organization in Washington, went public with information that seems to finger the FDA in shady dealings regarding tuna's safety.

The FDA used focus groups to decide how to phrase the message about mercury in fish. One document shown to women in the focus groups mentioned limiting the amount of tuna they should eat during pregnancy. The limit was set at 12 oz. a week of canned tuna, or 3 oz. of tuna steak a week.

But FDA documents show that before drafting the final version of the advisory, agency officials met with tuna industry executives, who allegedly urged the agency to drop tuna from the advisory.

In response to the EWG's accusations, an FDA committee will meet this spring to review the advisory and the process that led up to it. But that's not to say they're admitting to any lapse in judgment. "FDA does stand behind the process," an agency spokesman says. "But we do understand the confusion that has arisen."

Going on what was learned in the focus groups, the FDA argues, most women would avoid tuna altogether if they were told to limit how much they eat. That means they would miss out on the health benefits of tuna, and the $6-billion-a-year tuna industry might suffer unnecessary losses. The EWG doesn't buy that explanation, saying that transcripts of the focus group sessions tell a different story -- that women were eager for information and ready to follow guidelines set down on paper. That's a matter of interpretation, but EWG spokeswoman Laura Chapin says, "The problem is using focus groups to determine if you should communicate" certain safety information. Instead, she says, the purpose should have been to find the best way to tell women what they have a right to know.

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