TMA Testifies on SB 506: Mercury Consumption Advisories

Testimony: Senate Bill 506 by Senator Robert Deuell (R-Greenville)

Senate Committee on Health and Human Services  

By:  G. Sealy Massingill, MD
April 5, 2011

Chair Nelson and members of the committee. My name is G. Sealy Massingill, MD. I am Associate Professor for Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s (TMA) Committee on Maternal and Perinatal Health. I’m here today on behalf of the 45,000 members of the TMA and we are pleased to express our support for Senate Bill 506 by Senator Deuell. The bill would make changes to the consumption advisories that the state must issue on mercury contamination in fish. 

Mercury is in our air, water, and soil. We all are exposed to mercury in some way.  However, high levels of mercury exposure can cause serious health effects including damage to the brain, kidneys, and lungs. There is a ‘safe’ level of mercury, which has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. This standard is considered to protect the general public’s health. But TMA is concerned with the effects of mercury pollution for certain populations.   

SB 506 strengthens our state’s environmental health system by lowering the levels of mercury that would require the state to issue a consumption advisory. Consumption advisories are important because they help us make informed decisions on what we consume. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[1] measured mercury levels in more than 8,000 people over the age of 1, they found that almost everyone had some measureable level of mercury. However, some populations are more at risk of getting sick from mercury.   

Mercury affects pregnant women, their developing fetus, infants, and young children. When a pregnant woman consumes fish or shellfish contaminated with mercury, the mercury can readily pass through the placenta. Mercury exposure can then affect the highly sensitive developing brain of a fetus. Our physicians inform women who might become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and their young children to be extremely cautious. We want our patients to know about the dangers of eating contaminated fish or shellfish. As physicians, we want to have healthy moms and healthy children.

Children who are exposed to even low levels of mercury can have physical and other impairments. This includes low birth weight, delayed speech, or even having difficulties walking. These developmental problems can lead to many years of special education.  

Mercury exposure in Texas is a serious health threat. There are places in Texas where the public can be exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury. In water, mercury is known as methylmercury. Any fish in this type of water can become contaminated with mercury. One way water can become contaminated with mercury is deposits from industrial sources. Unfortunately Texas has some of the highest levels of industrial mercury emissions.   

Fish and shellfish have very important nutrients, including low-calorie protein and omega-3 fatty acids and we encourage a diet that includes seafood. While almost all fish contain mercury, fish from some water bodies have higher levels of mercury, and this generally includes larger fish. That’s why the use of local advisories is so important— so that pregnant or nursing mothers can make informed choices.   

The Texas Legislature has supported efforts to ensure women have access to information that help them make good decisions to protect their health. We have more than 400,000 births each year in Texas. We must also have a rigorous public health advisory system based on current science so we can protect the health of pregnant women. Many other states already have established lower advisory levels than Texas. Instead, we encourage you take steps to protect Texas’ women and young children from deadly mercury levels.    

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[1] CDC, Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. 2003-2004.


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