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Mercury Poisoning: Dolphins and Humans Impacted

Dec 09, 2015 05:12 PM EST
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Humans and Marine animals alike are affected by high mercury levels from the world's oceans. That's because fish and other sea creatures are the main sources of mercury exposure in humans, according to researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

In a recent study of dolphins living in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), Florida, researchers found high enough levels of mercury that they were prompted to investigate the potential risks humans face because they consume the same seafood dolphins eat, according to the university's news release.

The most toxic form of mercury is known as methylmercury, and through the processes of biomagnification it makes its way up the food chain, increasing in toxicity at each stage. It follows then, as methylmercury builds up in fish and shellfish, those that eat the fish – dolphins and humans, for example – are at an increased risk.

"This research exemplifies the role of dolphins as an animal sentinel in identifying a public health hazard," Adam Schaefer, one of the study researchers and FAU Harbor Branch epidemiologist, explained in the university's release. "It is a unique and critical example of closing the loop between animal and human health."

When preforming follow-up tests of humans living near the IRL, researchers confirmed they too exhibited high levels of mercury, much of which was due to the consumption of local fish and shellfish. Mercury is a global concern and known to affect one's memory, visual-motor skills, and cognitive development, among other side effects. This is of particular concern for pregnant women, since the developing nervous system of a fetus is highly vulnerable to mercury exposure.

"Fish consumption is recommended for a healthy diet and has many benefits including a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease," John Reif, Colorado State University research professor and collaborator on the study, added in the release. "Pregnant women can balance the risks and benefits of seafood consumption by continuing to eat fish, but avoiding fish caught in the Indian River Lagoon where the levels of mercury are higher."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Veterinary Science.

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