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UGA Marine Extension offers mercury hair testing

UGA Marine Extension educated mothers and pregnant women on safe seafood consumption

Pregnant and nursing women are often bombarded with confusing messages about seafood consumption. Seafood is one of the best sources of protein for children’s developing brains and adults’ healthy hearts, and yet excessive mercury consumed by pregnant and nursing mothers through seafood can be passed on to babies, negatively affecting their brain development. The good news is that human bodies naturally flush out mercury, and it is easy to lower the amount of mercury in your body in only a few months.

For women who are concerned about their mercury levels, UGA Marine Extension (MAREX) and Georgia Sea Grant have recently developed a mercury hair-testing program that provides a simple and affordable screening method for women of childbearing age. Participants from across the nation can mail in samples and receive results accompanied by educational materials designed to encourage healthy seafood consumption. The program strives to help participants make informed choices and eat seafood with confidence.

The most common way that mercury enters water systems is through emissions from coal production. It can travel thousands of miles in the air before falling to the ground in precipitation, building up in oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. Fish absorb mercury from the water they swim in and from eating other fish that have mercury in them.

Fortunately, most popular seafood species contain very little mercury—including shrimp, salmon, cod, catfish and scallops, to name a few. However, older and larger fish are at risk of having high mercury levels. The fish that pose the greatest risk of high levels of mercury include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

Although the hair-testing program was developed to serve women in Georgia, there has been international demand for this service. Since its inception, the program has served 1,691 women from 502 U.S. cities in 40 states. Internationally, the program has helped participants in 14 additional countries. Overall, the program has tested 676 women of childbearing age—9.5 percent of whom had mercury levels above the recommended guidelines. These participants received free additional testing and personalized information until their mercury levels fell within the desired range. One hundred percent of those who have submitted re-test samples have shown decreased mercury levels.

This fall, MAREX/Georgia Sea Grant will be testing almost 800 samples from nine Latin American countries as part of a new collaboration with the University of Michigan and the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama.

For more information on mercury levels in seafood or to order a test, visit

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