Mercury levels in an urban pregnant population in Durham County, North Carolina

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011 Mar;8(3):698-712. doi: 10.3390/ijerph8030698. Epub 2011 Mar 1.


The adverse effects of prenatal mercury exposure, most commonly resulting from maternal fish consumption, have been detected at very low exposure levels. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, however, have been shown to support fetal brain and vision development. Using data from a prospective, cohort study of pregnant women from an inland area in the US South, we sought to understand the fish consumption habits and associated mercury levels across subpopulations. Over 30% of women had at least 1 μg/L of mercury in their blood, and about 2% had blood mercury levels above the level of concern during pregnancy (≥ 3.5 μg/L). Mercury levels were higher among Asian/Pacific Islander, older, higher educated, and married women. Fish consumption from any source was reported by 2/3 of the women in our study, with older women more likely to consume fish. Despite eating more fish meals per week, lower income, lower educated women had lower blood mercury levels than higher income, higher educated women. This suggests the different demographic groups consume different types of fish. Encouraging increased fish consumption while minimizing mercury exposure requires careful crafting of a complex health message.

Keywords: fish consumption; mercury; pregnant women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diet / ethnology
  • Female
  • Fishes / classification*
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Mercury / blood*
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • North Carolina / ethnology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Urban Population*
  • Young Adult


  • Mercury