Mercury is a naturally-occurring element that exists in water, soil, and air. In its pure form, it is a liquid metal and is sometimes called quicksilver. Over the past decade, mercury has been under the spotlight because large farmed fish such as tuna and chilean sea bass, as well as many shellfish, have been linked to high mercury levels that can cause mercury poisoning among people who consume the fish. The reason that mercury is not necessarily harmful in its natural state but can become harmful in fish is because when mercury in the air or on land is deposited in bodies of water, microorganisms alter its makeup and it becomes methylmercury, which is highly toxic.
Occasional consumption of fish known to have characteristically high mercury levels is generally safe, but pregnant women should avoid it completely, and no one should consume more than two or three 4-oz servings per week, as exposure can lead to damage to the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and immune system.
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