Fish provide many dietary benefits as a source of lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other essential nutrients. However, some types of fish can also be sources of harmful contaminants.
You can reduce your exposure to contaminants in fish by choosing safer types of fish and by changing the way you prepare fish.
Check your local fish consumption advisories in your area and limit your consumption of high mercury fish. Some types or sizes of fish may be protected and cannot be eaten. Check catch limits or restrictions for different types of fish. Share consumption advisories and catch limit information with friends and family!
Check Your Local Advisories
- Remove skin and internal organs before cooking the fish. Discard the skin and organs (see diagram above)
- Baking or broiling fish on a broiler tray instead of frying may help to reduce exposure to contaminants in the fish
- Do not use the fat that comes out of the fish during cooking for sauces or other cooking purposes
Check out our 2021-2022 Recipe Calendar for safe and delicious ways to prepare your fish!
Common Fish Contaminants & Health Impacts
Many fish species live in contaminated waters and their bodies may contain chemical contaminants that can be toxic to people. Eating fish that contain contaminants can cause these contaminants to build up in a person’s body. Eating contaminated fish for a long time can increase the risk of illness for adults, but may be especially risky for children and babies because their bodies are still developing.
Depending on the type and amount of contaminants, long-term exposure from eating some types of fish can increase the risk of illness, developmental issues, or, in some cases, cancer. Click on the contaminants below to learn more about specific health effects associated with those chemicals.
Why are some contaminants found in fish while others are not?
Not all types of environmental contaminants will accumulate in fish – it depends on many different factors. In general, however, compounds that accumulate in fish have a few things in common:
- They do not breakdown easily in the environment
- Many of them can be carried long distances by air or water away from where there were released
- Some chemicals like PCBs are fat-loving (also called lipophilic) meaning that they dissolve in fats/oils and do not mix well with water, and this makes them more likely to enter and stay in the bodies of animals, including fish
- They are not easily broken down, or metabolized, once they make it inside the body of an organism, and may stay there for a long time.
Community Health Outreach Materials
Are you a community health professional or local organization interested in conducting a safe fish consumption training or outreach campaign in your community?
The following materials were developed by the DUSRC Community Engagement Core in partnership with the Cape Fear River Watch and other community partners for an educational outreach campaign targeted at subsistence fishermen on the Cape Fear River.
Contact us if you need assistance adapting these materials for your region or have questions about dimensions, paper type, etc. needed for printing.
What is social marketing?
Social marketing borrows techniques from traditional commercial marketing campaigns for a social purpose. The approach aims to impact individual behavior by addressing barriers and motivations to behavior change. Social marketing campaigns like “Stop, Check, Enjoy!” are driven by the wants and needs of the public and they aim to change behaviors or ideas for the better.
Social Media Toolkit
The stop, Check, & Enjoy! campaign aims to help people eat safer fish from out of the Cape Fear River. Our social media toolkit is a great way to spread these important environmental health messages to the vulnerable groups that are most impacted by contaminated fish.
A social media toolkit gives anyone the information and resources they need to amplify a social media campaign. Our toolkit aims to spread the messages of the Stop, Check, & Enjoy! campaign — namely eating fish safely from the Cape Fear River.
Fish Consumption Advisories
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is the state agency responsible for collecting fish tissue and testing for contaminants. The NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) uses the data on contaminant concentrations to set fish consumption advisories. Fish tissue testing can be requested by the DEQ, by local health departments, or during a public health evaluation at a hazardous waste location.
To set these advisories, NC DHHS uses the fish tissue data along with general information and some assumptions about the types and amounts of fish eaten by the average person, to assess health risk. NC DHHS sometimes take subsistence fish consumers into account as well. If the agency identifies a significant health risk for a group of people as a result of eating certain types of fish, then NC DHHS will issue a fish consumption advisory for that body of water, with corresponding limits to how much of each type of fish can be eaten, each week.
North Carolina Fish Forum
In March 2019, the North Carolina Fish Forum was hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and the Duke Superfund Research Center Community Engagement Core to bring together stakeholders involved in issuing and communicating Fish Consumption Advisories. Our goal was to discuss opportunities and challenges for improving the fish consumption advisory process in North Carolina.
- Stop, Check, Enjoy! Campaign Materials
- Stop, Check, Enjoy! 2021-2022 Recipe Calendar
- Mercury in Fish Fact Sheet
- Educating Others About Choosing Safer Fish
- Fish ID Quick Guide
- Mercurio En El Pescado
Other Helpful Resources
- Should I Eat the Fish I Catch? brochure (English) (Español) – US EPA
- Advice about Eating Fish For Women Who Are or Might Become Pregnant, Breastfeeding Mothers, and Young Children – US FDA
- Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know – US EPA and FDA
- Mercury: What you need to know – Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program
- Contaminants in Fish – UNC Chapel Hill Superfund Research Program
- Eat Safe Fish” materials from Michigan – Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
Understanding Fish Consumption Advisories
- Current Mercury Advisories by County – North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
- General Mercury in Fish Advisory for North Carolina – North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
- What You Need to Know about Eating Freshwater Fish in North Carolina: Fish Consumption Advisories – NC State Center for Human Health and the Environment
Have a question about contaminants and health?
Contact the ATSDR Information Line: 800-CDC-INFO