The role of sport-fish consumption advisories in mercury risk communication: A 1998-1999 12-state survey of women age 18-45

H. A. Anderson, L. P. Hanrahan, A. Smith, L. Draheim, M. Kanarek, J. Olsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Background: In 2002, in the United States, 48 states issued advisories for sport-fish consumers that included 39 chemical contaminants. The most commonly identified chemical was methyl mercury, which is linked to reproductive and developmental effects. Advisories to reduce consumption of contaminated fish have been issued by states since the early 1970s. Advisories are being integrated to include both sport and commercial fish. Methods: As part of a comprehensive risk-communication project, from December 1998 through August 1999 the Wisconsin Division of Public Health and the State of Maine Bureau of Health conducted a 12-state random-digit-dial telephone survey of 3015 women of childbearing age (ages 18-45). The goal was to assess the prevalence of fish consumption, understanding of mercury toxicity, and awareness of state sport-fish consumption advisories for mercury. We gathered information concerning respondents' demographic characteristics, understanding of mercury toxicity, fish consumption during the preceding 12 months, and sport-fish consumption advisory awareness. Results: The overall survey completion rate was 57% with a Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO)-calculated response rate of 50%. Completion rates varied from 37% in New Jersey to 73% in Minnesota. Fish consumption during the previous 12 months was reported by 87% of respondents (range by state of 82-90%). Nearly 10% of women reported consuming two or more fish-meals per week over the prior 12 months. Twenty-nine percent reported sport-fish consumption during the same time period, with a greater state-to-state variability (14-43%). Most women (71%) were aware of mercury's toxicity to a developing child (87% among those aware of an advisory and 67% among those unaware of an advisory). However, awareness of state advisories was only 20%, ranging by state from 8% to 32%. Women who were older, had more than a high school education, and had a household member with a fishing license were the most informed about mercury and fish-consumption advisories. Conclusions: Most women of childbearing age consume commercial fish and a substantial number also consume sport-caught fish. Despite this potential exposure to dietary mercury, most are unfamiliar with their state's mercury fish-consumption advisory. Most women were aware of the most toxic effects of mercury but less informed about mercury and its relationship to types of fish and fish characteristics. Minorities, women over age 30, family incomes above $25,000, and those with some collage education were more likely to be consuming two or more fish-meals per week. Until source control and environmental remediation efforts can reduce the environmental burden of mercury below levels of concern, combined sport and commercial fish consumption advisories will remain the primary means of reducing human exposure to methylmercury. Assuring and assessing the effectiveness of such advisories is paramount. Our survey documents that current efforts to inform vulnerable populations are far from optimal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-324
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2004
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Biochemistry


  • Fish consumption advisories
  • Mercury
  • Random-digit-dial survey
  • Risk communication
  • Sport fish


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