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Environ Res. 2015 Aug;141:58-68. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2014.10.029. Epub 2015 Feb 7.

Fish consumption patterns and hair mercury levels in children and their mothers in 17 EU countries.

Author information

Environmental Toxicology, Centro Nacional de Sanidad Ambiental (CNSA), Instituto de Salud Carlos III(ISCIII), 28220 Majadahonda, Madrid, Spain. Electronic address:
Environmental Toxicology, Centro Nacional de Sanidad Ambiental (CNSA), Instituto de Salud Carlos III(ISCIII), 28220 Majadahonda, Madrid, Spain.
European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC), Institute of Environment and Sustainability, 21027 Ispra, Italy.
Instituto de Investigacion de Enfermedades Raras (IIER) Instituto de Salud Carlos III (ISCIII), Madrid, Spain.
Public Health England, Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Chilton, United Kingdom.
Institute for Prevention and Occupational Medicine of the German Social Accident Insurance-Institute of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (IPA), Germany.
Environmental Risk and Health, Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), Mol, Belgium.
University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
Federal Environment Agency (UBA), Dessau-Rosslau, Berlin, Germany.
Department of Environmental Sciences, Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Departament of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Demark.
DG Environment, Federal Public Service Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, Brussels, Belgium.
BiPRO, Munich, Germany.
CHU of Liege, Laboratory of Clinical, Forensic and Environmental Toxicology, Liege, Belgium.
State General Laboratory, Nicosya, Cyprus.
National Institute of Public Health, Prague, Czech Republic.
Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) Louxembourg.
Nofer Institute of Occupational Medicine, Lodz, Poland.
Lisbon Faculty of Medicine, Lisbon, Portugal.
Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.
Environmental Health Center, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Public Health Authority of the Slovak Republic (UVZ SR), Bratislava, Slovak Republic.
Department of Community of Health, Health Service Executive, Kildare, Ireland.
Larnaca General Hospital, Larnaca, Cyprus.
Department of Hygiene, Social and Environmental Medicine, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany.
National Institute of Environmental Health, Budapest, Hungary.
Public Analyst's Laboratory Health Service Executive, Cork, Ireland.
Laboratoire National de Santé, Dudelange, Luxembourg.
Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Berne, Switzerland.


The toxicity of methylmercury (MeHg) in humans is well established and the main source of exposure is via the consumption of large marine fish and mammals. Of particular concern are the potential neurodevelopmental effects of early life exposure to low-levels of MeHg. Therefore, it is important that pregnant women, children and women of childbearing age are, as far as possible, protected from MeHg exposure. Within the European project DEMOCOPHES, we have analyzed mercury (Hg) in hair in 1799 mother-child pairs from 17 European countries using a strictly harmonized protocol for mercury analysis. Parallel, harmonized questionnaires on dietary habits provided information on consumption patterns of fish and marine products. After hierarchical cluster analysis of consumption habits of the mother-child pairs, the DEMOCOPHES cohort can be classified into two branches of approximately similar size: one with high fish consumption (H) and another with low consumption (L). All countries have representatives in both branches, but Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Sweden have twice as many or more mother-child pairs in H than in L. For Switzerland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia the situation is the opposite, with more representatives in L than H. There is a strong correlation (r=0.72) in hair mercury concentration between the mother and child in the same family, which indicates that they have a similar exposure situation. The clustering of mother-child pairs on basis of their fish consumption revealed some interesting patterns. One is that for the same sea fish consumption, other food items of marine origin, like seafood products or shellfish, contribute significantly to the mercury levels in hair. We conclude that additional studies are needed to assess and quantify exposure to mercury from seafood products, in particular. The cluster analysis also showed that 95% of mothers who consume once per week fish only, and no other marine products, have mercury levels 0.55 μg/g. Thus, the 95th percentile of the distribution in this group is only around half the US-EPA recommended threshold of 1 μg/g mercury in hair. Consumption of freshwater fish played a minor role in contributing to mercury exposure in the studied cohort. The DEMOCOPHES data shows that there are significant differences in MeHg exposure across the EU and that exposure is highly correlated with consumption of fish and marine products. Fish and marine products are key components of a healthy human diet and are important both traditionally and culturally in many parts of Europe. Therefore, the communication of the potential risks of mercury exposure needs to be carefully balanced to take into account traditional and cultural values as well as the potential health benefits from fish consumption. European harmonized human biomonitoring programs provide an additional dimension to national HMB programs and can assist national authorities to tailor mitigation and adaptation strategies (dietary advice, risk communication, etc.) to their country's specific requirements.


Human Biomonitoring; Mercury in hair; Sea fish; Seafood products; Shellfish

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