Minnesota will receive nearly $1 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expand efforts to change fish consumption among young women, a response to high levels of mercury detected in the Lake Superior basin.
Along with an earlier grant, the Minnesota Department of Health will spend a total of $2.4 million to reduce mercury exposure in women of childbearing age by developing new public health messages delivered at the doctor’s office.
The project follows a 2011 study that found 8 percent of the infants born around the shores of Lake Superior had unhealthy levels of mercury in their blood. In Minnesota, the rate was even higher — one in 10. Mercury is a neurotoxin that causes developmental problems in children.
“If we can get this information to women preconception, then we can prevent exposure in the baby,” said Patricia McCann, a scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Many long-lived fish in the Lake Superior basin contain high levels of mercury, and the region is also home to a large number of people who eat the fish they catch. And for reasons not understood, about 10 percent of the lakes and streams in Minnesota have much higher levels of mercury than others. That includes the St. Louis River and the massive estuary it creates at Duluth that is a fish incubator for the western half of Lake Superior.
Health experts say women and children should eat fish because it contains valuable fatty acids and low-fat proteins. But young women need to know which ones to avoid as well, McCann said.
Working with HealthPartners in Bloomington and Essentia Health in Duluth, researchers will test new messaging techniques for fish-consumption advice. Researchers at Cornell University will develop fish-consumption diaries for young women in the study to track whether the new messages change the fish they eat.
Eventually, the information will be included in screening questions that clinics routinely use with their patients.
Michigan, Wisconsin and researchers at Cornell received related grants, for a total of $3.6 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.