Tracking Declines in Mercury Exposure in the New York City Adult Population, 2004-2014

J Urban Health. 2018 Dec;95(6):813-825. doi: 10.1007/s11524-018-0269-z.


Mercury is a toxic metal that can be measured in human blood and urine. Population-based biomonitoring from 2004 guided New York City (NYC) Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) efforts to reduce exposures by educating the public about risks and benefits of fish consumption-a predominant source of exposure in the general population-and removing mercury-containing skin-lightening creams and other consumer products from the marketplace. We describe changes in exposures over the past decade in relation to these local public health actions and in the context of national changes by comparing mercury concentrations measured in blood (1201 specimens) and urine (1408 specimens) from the NYC Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NYC HANES) 2013-2014 with measurements from NYC HANES 2004 and National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) 2003-2004 and 2013-2014. We found that NYC adult blood and urine geometric mean mercury concentrations decreased 46% and 45%, respectively. Adult New Yorkers with blood mercury concentration ≥ 5 μg/L (the New York State reportable level) declined from 24.8% (95% CL = 22.2%, 27.7%) to 12.0% (95% CL = 10.1%, 14.3%). The decline in blood mercury in NYC was greater than the national decline, while the decline in urine mercury was similar. As in 2004, Asian New Yorkers had higher blood mercury concentrations than other racial/ethnic groups. Foreign-born adults of East or Southeast Asian origin had the highest prevalence of reportable levels (29.7%; 95% CL = 21.0%, 40.1%) across sociodemographic groups, and Asians generally were the most frequent fish consumers, eating on average 11 fish meals in the past month compared with 7 among other groups (p < 0.001). Fish consumption patterns were similar over time, and fish continues to be consumed more frequently in NYC than nationwide (24.7% of NYC adults ate fish ten or more times in the past 30 days vs. 14.7% nationally, p < 0.001). The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that blood mercury levels have declined in part because of local and national efforts to promote consumption of lower mercury fish. Local NYC efforts may have accelerated the reduction in exposure. Having "silver-colored fillings" on five or more teeth was associated with the highest 95th percentile for urine mercury (4.06 μg/L; 95% CL = 3.1, 5.9). An estimated 5.5% of the adult population (95% CL = 4.3%, 7.0%) reported using a skin-lightening cream in the past 30 days, but there was little evidence that use was associated with elevated urine mercury in 2013-14.

Keywords: Biomonitoring; Blood; Fish; Heavy metals; Mercury; NYC HANES; National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey; New York City; Population health; Seafood; Skin-lightening creams; Surveillance; Urine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cities / epidemiology
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Environmental Monitoring / statistics & numerical data*
  • Ethnic Groups / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Health Surveys / trends*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mercury / blood*
  • Mercury / urine*
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Urban Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Young Adult


  • Mercury