“Can I eat fish?” This question is often on the minds on pregnant women and, due to the fear of mercury contamination, many decide“better safe than sorry” when it comes to a enjoying a fishy feast. A recent study suggests that eating fish isn’t nearly as dangerous as previously believed. The fatty acids in fish may actually protect the brain from potential mercury damage.

Mercury in fish is a man-made environmental problem. According to Scientific American, human industrial activity such as coal-fired electricity generation, smelting, and burning waste, cause large amounts of mercury to rise into the atmosphere. Eventually, all this mercury finds its way back down to Earth's surface in the form of rain and snow. That precipitation then builds up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. It’s here that unsuspecting marine life absorb the element in unnaturally large quantities and, by eating seafood, mercury is sometimes passed on to humans.

The larger the animal, the more mercury it’s believed to contain. When it comes to big fish, not only has the fish absorbed the chemical, but it is also consumed other sea life which have done the same. This is called “bioaccumulation” and is the reason why it’s recommended that individuals keep their consumption of large fish such as tuna to a minimum.

If large enough amounts of mercury accumulate in the human body, it can cause side reproductive troubles and nervous system disorders. However, 30 years of researcher on the remote island nation of Seychelles off the coast of Africa has shown that perhaps pregnant women’s fear of fish is overstated.

According to a press release, the study has shown tha tpregnant women consuming an average of 12 meals per week containing fish did not experience developmental problems in their children. Scientists hypothesize that the nutritional benefits from the fish’s fatty acids are actually able to protect mothers from mercury's potential harm.

“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes," said Edwin van Wijngaarden, a co-author of the study in the press release. "It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury."

While mercury in mothers has been linked to neurological damage in their offspring, there may be an exception when this mercury is consumed in fish. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in the fish offer the unborn child protection against mercury’s harm. On top of this, the researchers found that the fatty acid in the fish mother’s ate was associated with higher test scores in the children at 20 months.

"It appears that relationship between fish nutrients and mercury may be far more complex than previously appreciated," concluded Dr. Philip Davidson, senior author of the study. While the choice to eat fish or not when pregnant is ultimately at the hands of the mother, these results should give a bit of peace of mind to mom’s who love a bit of seafood.

Source: van Wijngaarden E, Strain JJ, Yeates AJ, et al. Prenatal exposure to methyl mercury from fish consumption and polyunsaturated fatty acids: associations with child development at 20 mo of age in an observational study in the Republic of Seychelle. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015