Context: Humans are exposed to methylmercury, a well-established neurotoxin, through fish consumption. The fetus is most sensitive to the adverse effects of exposure. The extent of exposure to methylmercury in US women of reproductive age is not known.
Objective: To describe the distribution of blood mercury levels in US children and women of childbearing age and the association with sociodemographic characteristics and fish consumption.
Design and setting: The 1999-2000 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a cross-sectional survey of the noninstitutionalized US population.
Participants: In 1999-2000, 1250 children aged 1 to 5 years and 2314 women aged 16 to 49 years were selected to participate in the survey. Household interviews, physical examinations, and blood mercury levels assessments were performed on 705 children (56% response rate) and 1709 women (74% response rate).
Main outcome measure: Blood concentration of total mercury.
Results: Blood mercury levels were approximately 3-fold higher in women compared with children. The geometric mean concentration of total blood mercury was 0.34 micro g/L (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.30-0.39 microg/L) in children and 1.02 microg/L (95% CI, 0.85-1.20 microg/L) in women. Geometric mean mercury levels were almost 4-fold higher among women who ate 3 or more servings of fish in the past 30 days compared with women who ate no fish in that period (1.94 microg/L vs 0.51 microg/L; P<.001).
Conclusions: Measures of mercury exposure in women of childbearing age and young children generally fall below levels of concern. However, approximately 8% of women had concentrations higher than the US Environmental Protection Agency's recommended reference dose (5.8 microg/L), below which exposures are considered to be without adverse effects. Women who are pregnant or who intend to become pregnant should follow federal and state advisories on consumption of fish.