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Keywords:

  • Risk-benefit analysis;
  • fish;
  • risk analysis;
  • methylmercury;
  • quality of life

Risks associated with toxicants in food are often controlled by exposure reduction. When exposure recommendations are developed for foods with both harmful and beneficial qualities, however, they must balance the associated risks and benefits to maximize public health. Although quantitative methods are commonly used to evaluate health risks, such methods have not been generally applied to evaluating the health benefits associated with environmental exposures. A quantitative method for risk-benefit analysis is presented that allows for consideration of diverse health endpoints that differ in their impact (i.e., duration and severity) using dose-response modeling weighted by quality-adjusted life years saved. To demonstrate the usefulness of this method, the risks and benefits of fish consumption are evaluated using a single health risk and health benefit endpoint. Benefits are defined as the decrease in myocardial infarction mortality resulting from fish consumption, and risks are defined as the increase in neurodevelopmental delay (i.e., talking) resulting from prenatal methylmercury exposure. Fish consumption rates are based on information from Washington State. Using the proposed framework, the net health impact of eating fish is estimated in either a whole population or a population consisting of women of childbearing age and their children. It is demonstrated that across a range of fish methylmercury concentrations (0–1 ppm) and intake levels (0–25 g/day), individuals would have to weight the neurodevelopmental effects 6 times more (in the whole population) or 250 times less (among women of child-bearing age and their children) than the myocardial infarction benefits in order to be ambivalent about whether or not to consume fish. These methods can be generalized to evaluate the merits of other public health and risk management programs that involve trade-offs between risks and benefits.