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State begins new mercury testing program for pregnant women

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

KODIAK (AP) -- Alaska, already the source of some of the nation's ''cleanest'' seafood, has a new program in place to test pregnant women's hair for dangerous levels of the harmful contaminant methylmercury, sometimes found in fish.

The Alaska Division of Public Health began the monitoring program this month across the state. Mark Withrow, a family physician in Kodiak, said he received the test kits this week, and will start offering the test to all his pregnant patients.

''(Mercury levels) are worth checking, but if there's a safe place for eating fish, it's here on Kodiak Island,'' Withrow said. ''I want to emphasize that eating seafood should be unrestricted and encouraged. It's good for you.''

When it comes to pollutant levels in fish, Alaska seafood is among the safest available, according to an expert panel convened by the public health division to review data on the levels of mercury in Alaska fish and humans. However, there is currently no national or statewide system in place to monitor fish for elevated levels of methylmercury, a more toxic form of mercury that's been found to cause harm to developing fetuses if consumed by the mother during pregnancy.

The public health department hopes this free, confidential program will provide additional reassurance that consumption of Alaska fish is safe and healthy for everyone, including pregnant women and their developing babies.

Program manager Dr. Tracie Lynn said the test is available through regular health care providers such as obstetricians, family practice doctors and certified nurse midwives.

Lynn said 250 testing kits have been mailed out since the program was announced in early June. Researchers hope to have enough information for a summary report by the end of the year.

The test involves collecting a small hair sample and measuring the level of mercury in the sample. Mercury, along with other substances in the body, is incorporated into hair as it grows and remains there for a long time. Hair sample testing can offer valuable information on levels of mercury exposure and how those levels change over time.

For now, the program is offered only to women who are pregnant. The program would be expanded to include all women of childbearing age if more funds were made available in the future.

Women who participate in the program would have a small sample of hair collected from the back of the head close to the scalp. The sample will be analyzed at a Seattle laboratory, and the results sent to the woman's health care provider. A summary of the data collected statewide will be made available on a regular basis.

If mercury levels measuring above the World Health Organization's standard of 10 parts per million are detected, the public health division will investigate and make recommendations.

According to the state epidemiology section's program bulletin, there is no data to suggest that mercury levels in Alaskans pose a health risk.



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