Moms-to-Be: Keep an Eye on Surprise Sources of Mercury

Pregnant women are advised to avoid fish with high mercury content to protect their unborn children from the dangers of mercury exposure. Now a new report suggests that high fructose corn syrup may be added to the list of potential sources. Mercury—a toxic heavy metal—is dangerous to all humans but particularly to pregnant women and children as high levels in the bloodstream can damage a child’s nervous system and harm development. While it is known that people may be exposed to mercury through fish, certain vaccines, and dental amalgam, less is known about mercury exposure from food products.

Research finds mercury in high fructose corn syrup

A new report, which released information from a 2005 investigation, found that nine out of 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup (obtained from three different food manufacturers) contained from 0.005 micrograms to 0.570 micrograms of mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup. In other words, nearly half of the samples contained detectable levels of mercury.

This finding is concerning as Americans consume an estimated 50 grams of high fructose corn syrup every day from the beverages and foods they drink and eat.

“The bottom line for consumers regarding the finding of mercury in high fructose corn syrup is that this is a newly found source of mercury exposure,” said Renee Dufault, lead author from the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. She adds, “Product labels listing high fructose corn syrup as a first or second ingredient may contain detectable levels of mercury if the high fructose corn syrup was manufactured with mercury grade chlor-alkali chemicals.”

Fortunately, many food manufacturers today have replaced the mercury cell technology used to make high fructose corn syrup with mercury-free production technology—but some manufacturers may still use the older technology. The authors stress the importance of a “mercury surveillance program” for food ingredients such as added sugars or preservatives manufactured with mercury-grade alkali products and urge public health officials to evaluate this potential source of mercury exposure as people from all over the world eat high fructose corn syrup in a wide variety of beverage and food products.

Tips for limiting mercury exposure

To keep children and infants away from mercury:

• Eliminate mercury in the home environment, such as eliminating mercury-containing thermometers.

• Limit fish with high mercury content, such as swordfish, king mackerel, red snapper, and tuna.

• In light of this new research, reducing mercury exposure is another good reason to limit children’s access to foods and drinks made high fructose corn syrup, and also for expectant mothers to choose in favor of more healthful option.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to first two measures in this list, and also that the Food and Drug Administration continue to evaluate biological and pharmaceutical products, such as vaccines, that may contain mercury. Additionally, Dufault suggests that pregnant and nursing women and children with autistic spectrum disorders may especially want to avoid foods that contain high fructose corn syrup to avoid further mercury exposure. The bottom line for any pregnant woman: talk with a doctor about the issue and keep the possible sources of mercury in mind so total exposure is kept to a minimum.

(Environ Health 2009;8:2 doi:10.1186/1476-069X-8-2)

Jane Hart, MD

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