Environmental Health Fact Sheet

Illinois Fish And Your Health

A Guide to Your Health

Fish are nutritious, but some fish contain chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlordane and mercury. These chemicals get into the water fish live in and the food they eat. Some of these chemicals build up in fish over time, and these chemicals can cause harm to people who eat them. It is important to keep your exposure to these chemicals as low as possible. Illinois issues a fish advisory to help you to plan what sport fish to eat as well as how often they can be eaten. The advisory is not intended to discourage you from eating fish, but should be used as a guide to eating fish low in contaminants.

Health Benefits

Eating fish is good for you! When properly prepared, fish provide many health benefits. Many doctors suggest eating a half pound of fish each week to help prevent heart disease. Almost any kind of fish can have real health benefits when it replaces a high-fat source of protein, such as red meat, in the diet. You can get the health benefits of fish and reduce your exposure to chemicals by following the guidelines in the fish advisory.

Health Risks

Eating contaminated fish does not necessarily mean that you will get sick. However, over time, harmful levels of PCBs and mercury can build up in your body without you knowing it. This is of special concern if you are pregnant or are nursing a baby. Mercury causes problems with the nervous system that can lead to learning difficulties in children. PCBs are known to cause low birth weights and delays in physical development. If you follow the recommendations in the fish advisory, you will keep your exposure low.  

Cleaning and Cooking

Many chemicals are found at higher levels in the fat of the fish. You can reduce the amount of these chemicals and your exposure by properly trimming, skinning and cooking your catch.

Cooking does not destroy chemicals in fish , but heat from cooking melts some of the fat in fish and allows some of the contaminated fat to drip away. Do not use the drippings to prepare broth, sauce, chowder or soup.

These cleaning precautions will not reduce the amount of mercury in fish. Mercury is found throughout a fish’s muscle tissue (the part you eat) rather than in the fat and skin. Therefore, the only way to reduce mercury intake is to reduce the amount of contaminated fish you eat. Check the fish advisory for the body of water where you fish to see if mercury is a concern.

Protect Yourself

  • Keep smaller fish for eating.
    Practicing selective catch-and-release can help reduce the amount of contaminants you consume. Besides tasting better, younger, smaller fish tend to be less contaminated than older, larger fish.
  • Eat less contaminated fish.
    Panfish tend to have fewer contaminants. Some chemicals build up in large predator fish to a much greater extent than in panfish.
  • Eat smaller meals of big fish.
    Try freezing part of your catch and space the meals over time. This will give your body time to eliminate the contaminants.
  • Eat less fried fish.
    Eat less fried or deep-fat fried fish because frying seals in the chemicals that might be in the fish’s fat.

Tips for Cleaning Fish

cleaning fish cleaning fish
1. Remove the head and carefully filet the fish with a sharp, long-bladed knife.   2. Trim the fat along the top center of filet.
cleaning fish cooking fish
3. Trim fat along edges of filet.   4. Bake, broil, or barbeque fish on a rack to allow fat to drip off.

How to Get More Information

All fish from the state’s lakes and rivers that have been tested are listed in the current Illinois Fishing Information booklet published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Call 217-782-6424 to request a free copy or write to –

“Fish Advisory”
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Division of Fisheries
600 North Grand Avenue West
Springfield, IL 62702

For questions concerning the health effects associated with eating contaminated fish, call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 217-782-5830 or visit our Web site at <http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/factsheets/fishadv.htm>.

Special thanks go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for the fish cleaning illustrations.

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Environmental Health Home

Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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