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EPA to fund Lake Superior mercury study -- babies at risk

Lake trout
Lake trout

The federal government will investigate why infants born around Lake Superior have sometimes unhealthy levels of mercury in their blood, especially those along Minnesota's north shore.

The StarTribune yesterday reported the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a $1.4 million grant to the Minnesota Department of Health to study mercury exposure among tribal communities and recreational anglers, both of whom rely on fish in their diet. Details will be announced this afternoon.

The research project follows a 2011 study that found one in 10 babies along Minnesota's North Shore are born with unhealthy levels of mercury in their bodies. The analysis of blood from 1,465 infants from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, was the first to prove that babies, who are most susceptible to the toxin, carried sometimes very high concentrations of it.

Those in Minnesota were more likely to have higher levels than their counterparts in Wisconsin and Michigan, most likely because their mothers ate more fish, the primary source of mercury in people. The toxin comes from coal fired plants around the world, and is deposited from air pollution. Over time, it accumulates in the bodies of fish.

Babies born in the summer months, when local fish consumption is highest, had more mercury than those born in winter, state officials said.

The EPA has established a health standard for women of childbearing age and infants of 5.8 millionths of a gram per liter of blood. Anything above that is considered unhealthy, though would not necessarily result in neurological problems.


Chicago (Oct. 4, 2012)The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a $1.4 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to reduce mercury exposure risk for women and children who live along Lake Superior’s north shore.  Excessive blood mercury levels have been documented in infants in this area. The funding will be used to improve health screening and to develop more effective fish consumption advisories.

“Many Great Lakes fish are unsafe to eat because of mercury contamination,” said EPA Regional Administrator and Great Lakes National Program Manager Susan Hedman. “This project will help women make choices that minimize their exposure to mercury, but maximize the health benefits of eating fish.”

 The Grand Portage Chippewa Tribe and the Sawtooth Mountain Clinics in Grand Portage and Grand Marais, Minnesota will participate in the MDH project.  Physicians affiliated with the clinics will survey consenting female patients of childbearing age about fish consumption and test blood mercury levels. Patients will also be counseled to promote safe fish consumption choices.

 The work supported by the grant will build on an earlier EPA-funded study which was completed last year by MDH. In that study, 1,465 newborns in the Lake Superior Basin – including 139 infants from Wisconsin and 200 from Michigan – were tested for mercury in their blood. The study found that 8 percent of the infants had mercury levels higher than those recommended as safe by EPA.

“In our prior study we measured mercury levels in the blood of newborns in the Lake Superior Basin and found that these infants were, in fact, being exposed to mercury,” said Aggie Leitheiser, Assistant Commissioner of Health, Minnesota Department of Health.  “We strongly suspect – but we don’t know for certain – that the mercury came from eating fish.  The new EPA grant will fund work to identify and test new strategies for addressing this issue.”        

"Fish are critical to the diets of people all over Minnesota and all around the Great Lakes region – including members of Minnesota's Native Tribes," said Sen. Al Franken. "That's why it's so important that we do everything we can to protect Minnesotans from dangerous contaminants like mercury that can become concentrated in fish. For years, I've been working to support efforts to protect Minnesotans' health and restore the Great Lakes – including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – and I'm so pleased that the Minnesota Department of Health and Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have received this funding."

“The Great Lakes region has some of the highest levels of mercury in the country.  We know this neurotoxin has serious consequences for pregnant women and children.  This grant will help the Minnesota Department of Health move forward with a strategic approach to reduce prenatal mercury exposure from fish consumption,” said U.S. Representative Betty McCollum.

Today’s announcement is the most recent in a series of announcements to highlight EPA’s 2012 GLRI grants. Over the last three years, the GLRI has provided more than $320 million to clean up toxic contamination in Great Lakes Areas of Concern and to reduce the risks associated with toxic substances in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The GLRI, initially proposed by President Obama in February 2009, is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in more than two decades. More information about the Initiative is available at