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Hum Exp Toxicol. 2007 Mar;26(3):185-90.

Risk assessment of dietary exposure to methylmercury in fish in the UK.

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Food Standards Agency, 125 Kingsway, London WC2B 6NH, UK.


Risk assessment of chemicals in food is generally based upon the results of toxicological studies in laboratory animals, allowing for uncertainties relating to interspecies differences, human variability, and gaps in the database. Use of quantitative human data is preferable if available, as in the example of methylmercury. Methylmercury is a neurotoxic environmental contaminant, for which fish is the main source of dietary exposure. Human data from poisoning incidents and epidemiological studies have been used by expert committees to derive a guideline intake level for methylmercury, based on the susceptibility of the most sensitive lifestage, the developing fetus. In the UK, an expert group of nutritionists and toxicologists was formed to review the benefits and risks associated with fish consumption. A formal risk-benefit analysis was not possible because the nutritional data were not sufficiently quantitative. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT), therefore, modified the risk assessment approach to derive different guideline intake levels for different subgroups of the population. The COT opinion was used to provide targeted advice on how much fish can be consumed without undue risk from the contaminants. Consumption by adults of one weekly portion (140 g) of shark, swordfish or marlin, would lead to an exceedance of the guideline intake for methylmercury of 40-90%, set to protect the developing fetus, without considering intake from the rest of the diet. Pregnant women and women who may become pregnant within 1 year were, therefore, advised to avoid consumption of these species. Intakes in other adults would be within a higher guideline intake, set to protect groups of the population other than the developing fetus. However, consumption by children of one weekly portion of these species could lead to an exceedance of this guideline intake by up to 60%, without considering intake from the rest of the diet. It was, therefore, advised that consumption of these species by children should be avoided.

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