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All Fish Caught in U.S. Streams Contain Mercury

Sports fishermen take heed: A government test of fish pulled from nearly 300 streams in the United States found every one of them contaminated with some level of mercury.

The U.S. Geological Survey's research marks its most comprehensive examination of mercury contamination in stream fish. The study found that 27 percent of the fish had mercury levels high enough to exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for the average fish eater, those who eat fish twice a week.

But the findings in wild-caught fish underscore how widespread mercury contamination in the nation's waterways has become. Previous research has found levels of concern in ocean and lake fish.

"This science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation's waterways and protect the public from potential health dangers," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

Mercury is a neurotoxin especially dangerous to neurological development in infants and fetuses.

Most mercury in water comes from particles from the atmosphere, the EPA said, fed largely by coal-fired power plants, trash burning and concrete plants nationally and internationally, the EPA said.

The USGS study examined mercury in 291 U.S. streams from 1998 to 2005.

One surprising fact was that mercury levels were lower in streams in urban areas and higher in coastal plain streams fed by wetlands and forests, especially in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.

Those areas are biologically rich in the microbes that transform inorganic mercury in the atmosphere into the dangerous organic form called methyl mercury, said the USGS's Barbara Scudder, lead author on the paper.

The highest mercury levels were found in largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. The lowest were found in brown, rainbow-cutthroat trout and channel catfish.

Though the EPA emphasizes that fish are an important part of a healthful diet, some contaminated species, especially from lakes and streams, may be unsuitable for women of childbearing age and children.

David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom said in a statement, "Study after study has shown that the known health advantages from eating seafood far outweigh any hypothetical health risk."

Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute cautioned: "It's important that consumers know that this does not relate to the normal seafood that they find in restaurants or supermarkets. This is only recreational fish; this is not fish caught in the ocean or raised via aquaculture."

Forty-eight states have fish consumption advisories in place for certain species. A full list of such warnings is available at www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advisories.

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