Fred Mogul, Reporter, WNYC News
Fred Mogul has been covering healthcare and medicine for WNYC since 2002.
Newborn infants of some immigrant mothers from the Caribbean have relatively high mercury levels in their blood.
A new study looked at the habits of pregnant women in central Brooklyn and found 16 percent of their babies’ umbilical cords had enough mercury to land in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s warning zone.
Professor Laura Geer, from SUNY Downstate, said the toxic metal most likely comes from eating too much of certain kinds of fish, like tuna and shark. Larger fish typically have higher mercury content, because they’re higher up in the food chain.
“It’s what’s available in the fish markets, it’s what they’ve been eating since they were children in the Caribbean, so it’s part of their everyday culture and habit,” Geer said.
Mercury can impair neurological development in fetuses, infants and children, according to the EPA. Pre-natal exposure can impact cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.
The study also looked at whether Caribbean-born women were absorbing mercury from tooth fillings, workplace hazards, illegal skin-lightening creams and certain traditional religious ceremonies. Those have been concerns in the past, but the latest research points to fish consumption as the main culprit, Geer said.
Geer said fish can be a great food, but pregnant mothers and their care-providers need to get the latest information on the proper type and serving size of fish to eat. Once they do, they’re often receptive to making changes.
“They were fascinated to learn which fish were healthier than others,” Geer said. “Just a small amount of information can go a long way, because it’s something, obviously, they’re going to be very concerned about.”