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Am J Prev Med. 2005 Nov;29(4):353-65.

A quantitative analysis of prenatal methyl mercury exposure and cognitive development.

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Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Although a rich source of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that may confer multiple health benefits, some fish also contain methyl mercury (MeHg), which may harm the developing fetus. U.S. government recommendations for women of childbearing age are to modify consumption of high MeHg fish to reduce MeHg exposure, while recommendations encourage fish consumption among the general population because of the nutritional benefits. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis convened an expert panel (see acknowledgements) to quantify the net impact of resulting hypothetical changes in fish consumption across the population. This paper quantifies the impact of prenatal MeHg exposure on cognitive development. Other papers quantify the beneficial impact of prenatal intake of n-3 PUFAs on cognitive function and the extent to which fish consumption protects against coronary heart disease mortality and stroke in adults. This analysis aggregates results from three major prospective epidemiology studies to quantify the association between prenatal MeHg exposure and cognitive development as measured by intelligence quotient (IQ). It finds that prenatal MeHg exposure sufficient to increase the concentration of mercury in maternal hair at parturition by 1 microg/g decreases IQ by 0.7 points. This paper identifies important sources of uncertainty influencing this estimate, concluding that the plausible range of values for this loss is 0 to 1.5 IQ points.

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