If you're a fan of sushi and sashimi, you may want to avoid the yellowfin or Ahi tuna next time you go out to eat. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that mercury levels in yellowfin tuna caught in Hawaii have been rising since 1998 at an average rate of 3.8 percent per year.
Mercury levels in the Pacific Ocean have been on the rise since the 1980s, caused mostly by emissions from coal-fired power plants and gold mining. The paper, published Monday, January 2 in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, is the first to conclusively demonstrate that this increase in open water mercury levels is causing an increase in the amount of mercury present in fish. The researchers used data from previous studies on yellowfin tuna caught near Hawaii in 1971, 1998 and 2008. Between 1971 and 1998, there was no increase in the concentration of mercury in the flesh of the fish, but between 1998 and 2008, the concentration increased by at least 3.8 percent each year.
This makes sense based on what we know about mercury. Large predators like the tuna are likely to have the highest concentrations of mercury in their bodies, since mercury bioaccumulates, or travels up the food chain as predators eat smaller animals that have in turn eaten smaller animals, all of whom contain mercury in their systems.
Toxic methylmercury can cause serious damage to brain and nervous system function in humans. Young children, nursing mothers and pregnant women should consume no more than 6 ounces per week of yellowfin tuna for this reason.
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