The Minnesota Department of Health will use a $1.4 million federal grant in an effort to reduce mercury exposure in young women living along Lake Superior's North Shore, where tests have found unsafe levels of the metal in newborns.

The grant, announced Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will be used to test about 500 women of child-bearing age for blood mercury levels, and to develop a series of questions about their fish consumption -- the likeliest source of mercury.

State health officials will work with health care providers at three Sawtooth Mountain Clinics, in Grand Portage, Grand Marais and Tofte, to recruit volunteers for the study and to design a questionnaire that could eventually become part of standard medical screenings.

The grant follows a 2011 study which found that 8 percent of newborns tested in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan had mercury concentrations in their blood that exceeded federal safety standards. In Minnesota, the rate was even higher -- 10 percent.

Researchers said that many long-lived fish in the Lake Superior basin's lakes and stream contain high levels of mercury -- and the region is also home to a large number of people who eat the fish they catch.

Mercury can damage the brain and nervous system development in fetuses and babies. At high levels, it has been shown to affect memory, attention and language. As a result, the EPA has established a health standard for infants and women of child-bearing age of 5.8 millionths of a gram per liter of blood. Concentrations above that are considered unhealthy, though not necessarily resulting in neurological problems.

Eat the right fish

In addition, Minnesota has fish consumption advisories, particularly for children and young women who are pregnant or might become pregnant. But the results of the earlier study show that for many people, advisories are not enough.

The main focus of the new project is to figure out how to incorporate fish consumption education into regular doctor visits, said Pat McCann, an environmental health researcher with the Health Department.

"We want to give them education on which fish to choose," she said. "But we want them to choose the low-mercury fish so they can experience the benefits" of eating fish.

The four-year study will track women over time to determine whether their mercury levels decline. They will also be tested for levels of omega-3 fatty acids, one of the beneficial nutrients found in fish, to find out if they stop eating fish. Ideally, if the project works, mercury levels should fall and fatty acid levels should remain steady, McCann said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394