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Richard Ellis on ‘Diagnosis: Mercury’

Posted on Nov 28, 2008

In July, 2008, Knopf published my “Tuna: A Love Story.” I thought up the title and even designed the jacket. I was very proud of the title, until people started telling me that while it was clever, it didn’t come close to conveying what the book was about. “Tuna: A Love Story” could have been about anything: recipes, sushi, sandwiches, carpaccio, or even my reverence for the bluefin tuna, the fish whose portrait I painted for the cover. It was in fact about all those things, but upon looking at the title, no one would know that the book was also about biology, overfishing, mercury poisoning, fish-farming, the “tuna-dolphin problem,” and the possible extinction of the tuna. For the forthcoming paperback, the title has been changed to: “Tuna: Life, Death, and Mercury.” 

In the original book, I discussed at some length the dangers of mercury in fish, especially tuna. I cited various studies, and concluded that while mercury is in fact poisonous to humans, the small amounts in bluefin tuna (the nominal subject of my love affair), probably wouldn’t harm anyone very much. The FDA warned pregnant women and nursing mothers against eating tuna, but everyone else could go right ahead and eat it. In fact, you probably should go right ahead and eat it, because fish is so good for you. It is an excellent source of lean protein and the omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for brain and eye development. It’s lower in cholesterol than most meats, and usually cheaper in the supermarket. The American Heart Association suggests eating at least two servings of oily fish every week to help keep your heart healthy. Bad idea.


book cover


Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison


By Jane M. Hightower


Island Press, 326 pages


Buy the book


Mercury is so pervasively dangerous that it will probably do you more harm than good to eat certain kinds of fish regularly. Mercury is expelled by the ton from coal-fired electrical plants; it’s used in extracting gold from ore; it was used in hat-making (remember the Mad Hatter?); it’s used as a disinfectant (remember mercurochrome?) it’s in amalgam dental fillings; and thousands of tons were lost into the ocean when 16th-century Spanish treasure ships sank while transporting quicksilver (mercury) in one direction or the other between South America and Europe. And it’s used in the manufacture of chlorine.

In nature, chlorine is found in a combined state only, as sodium chloride (NaCl), common salt. It is a member of the halogen (salt-forming) group of elements and is obtained from chlorides by the action of oxidizing agents and more often by electrolysis. It is a greenish-yellow gas, combining directly with nearly all elements. It is widely used in making many everyday products, most importantly, safe drinking water. It is also extensively used in the production of paper products, dyestuffs, textiles, petroleum products, medicines, antiseptics, insecticides, food, solvents, paints, plastics and many other consumer products. Chlorine is used in the manufacture of chlorinated compounds for sanitation, pulp bleaching, disinfectants and textile processing. Further applications are the manufacture of chlorates, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and in the extraction of bromine. In other words, chlorine is used everywhere, and the manufactory has long been one of the primary sources of mercury’s release into the environment.

According to a recent study by the advocacy group Oceana, there are still some factories where chlorine is still being produced in a way that “creates numerous tons of mercury wastes with associated disposal and cleanup problems, pumps up corporate electric bills, unnecessarily, and in some cases turns neighboring communities against the companies.” Oceana identifies five American chlorine plants (“the filthy five”) in Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, that have not converted to the mercury-free technology now used in caustic soda plants around the world (including 36 in Japan) to reduce mercury contamination of the atmosphere. Caustic soda (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) is an important ingredient in the pulp and paper industries: the production of textile dyes, soap, detergents, solvents and herbicides.

For hundreds of years, mercury was prescribed as a cure for syphilis, but there is little evidence that it worked; indeed, it probably hurt more than it helped. In his 1874 “Materia Medica” (a book describing the uses of various substances in medicine), Dr. John B. Biddle discussed the preparations of mercury that could be used to cure or ameliorate syphilis and various other diseases:

“While it retains the liquid or metallic state, mercury is inert; but when taken internally, it sometimes combines with oxygen in the alimentary canal, and this becomes active. In the state of vapor, it frequently proves injurious—in some instances exciting salvation, ulceration of the mouth; in others, inducing a peculiar affectation of the nervous system, termed shaking palsy (tremor mercurialis), which is often attended with loss of memory, vertigo, and other evidence of cerebral disturbance, and sometimes terminates fatally.”

    Mercury was administered various ways, including orally and by rubbing it on the skin. One of the more curious methods was fumigation, in which the patient was placed in a closed box with his head sticking out; mercury was placed in the box and a fire was started under the box, which caused the mercury to vaporize. As we have seen, vaporizing mercury is one of the best ways to poison the patient. Indeed, some of the symptoms of syphilis—tremors, hearing loss, joint pain, forgetfulness and delirium—are much the same as those of mercury poisoning.

In his 1972 “History of Quicksilver,” Leonard Goldwater wrote that “The use of mercury in the treatment of syphilis may have been the most colossal hoax ever perpetrated in the history of a profession that has never been free of hoaxes.” Thus the application of quicksilver for patients suffering from syphilis gave rise to the saying, “A night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury.”

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By Eye Laser Treatment, June 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm Link to this comment

There are several mercury tests available to determine if one is suffering from mercury poisoning but these tests have limitations.  They won’t tell you how much contamination you have or where the mercury resides.  Just a simple yes or no to mercury poisoning.

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By DAveKnTux, June 19, 2009 at 3:56 am Link to this comment

the ammount of mercury pollution in the air is staggering, much of this is still produced by coal power plants, which as well as polluting our fish stocks is still fueling global warming and global climate change. Greater publicity and media attention is needed to bring the issue of mercury pollution into mainstream environmental politics.

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By titanbite, December 4, 2008 at 2:09 am Link to this comment

It wasn’t long ago that our favorite president Dumbya signed into law The Clean Air Act don’t be fooled the name is very misleading the act ALLOWED for MORE mercury contamination not less and gave these same polluters the ability to poison us even more,legally.That george bush what a guy I can’t understand why someone would think that he would be good to have a beer with,Since he is a self proclamed alchoholic one would need to ignore this fact to even consider drinking with this idiot and if you voted for him do not vote again you are an idiot who does not vote intellegently and you do not deserve the right to vote you do not research your decisions and you are directly responsible for this continued polluting so how are you liking bushbag now morons

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By da-veed, December 3, 2008 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sadly, I do not eat seafood anymore.  Because of the mercury and metals problem and because of the fact that everything that we produce as a civilization (not all of it healthy) eventually flows to the sea.
  I’m seriously looking into raising Tilapia (a freshwater fish) on a small scale, in the back yard. There are problems associated with fish farming as well, but these days I’m just a ‘fraidy-cat’ when it comes to serving the bounty of the sea to my family.

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By bob, November 29, 2008 at 9:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

was there a review of the other person’s book here? It seems like just an excuse for an article by Mr. Ellis pertaining to his own opinions and research.

This is not a bad article, is a bit self centered; but it is a terrible book review.

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By racetoinfinity, November 29, 2008 at 8:48 am Link to this comment

I stopped eating canned tuna fish (and any other form) years ago, because of mercury warnings.  I use canned chicken breast which flakes pretty much the same way and has plenty of protein.  I take fish oil supplements (oil NOT from tuna or other fish on the mercury list, of course).

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By Dave, November 29, 2008 at 6:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


There is no such thing as routine testing for heavy metals, sadly.  Nearly everyone has detectable levels of mercury and lead in their system.  However, mercury levels do not reflect how much is in the body (outside of blood levels for methylmercury in fish, but this is still only good for a few months after exposure)

Many people may be suffering from mercury or heavy metal intoxication and not know it themselves, or their doctors for that instance.  As Dr Hightower mentions, very few doctors know anything about this subject, even today.  It rarely gets talked about or when it is, it’s very easily ignored or brushed aside.

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By Suzie Kidder, November 28, 2008 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My BAD for not having previewed my comment - caught a typo just as it was disappearing ... please correct ... should be Heavy Metal Body Burden and not Heavy Body Burden ... Thank you.  Suzie

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By Suzie Kidder, November 28, 2008 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As many have already suggested - it’s a great idea to know your Heavy Body Burden, and to take whatever steps you can to minimize your exposure.  For those of us who have been “a little too fond of fish,” and/or live near one of those delightful coal burning electrical plants - learn to love cilantro.  Not only is it one of Nature’s finest antibiotics, but it’s also one of the few herbs believed (with some scientific evidence to support this) to be able to chelate mercury and help remove it from your body.  So if you LOVE Mexican food and crave cilantro ... maybe your body is talking to you?

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By coloradokarl, November 28, 2008 at 7:54 pm Link to this comment

OUCH!! grandpa Ed….That hurt!

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By skulz fontaine, November 28, 2008 at 7:46 pm Link to this comment

Bottom line is, you can tune a piano but you can’t tuna fish!

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By SlimTim, November 28, 2008 at 6:02 pm Link to this comment
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How routine is blood testing for mercury? I think nearly everyone experiences these symptoms. What’s your mercury score?!? And once you have the results, you’re stuck knowing your current mental/nervous status will remain that way, because your body’s mercury content doesn’t exactly deplete.

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By Grandpa Ed, November 28, 2008 at 5:29 pm Link to this comment
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Coloradokarl, you might be right for your local area, but not for the vast majority of the rest of the world when we get those billions of mercury containing CFL’s in everyone’s home. Please consider the following which is a short critique of the bogus argument that there will be a reduction in toxic mercury into the environment with CFL’s due to the energy reduction from coal plants in the US:
(1) 50% of electricity does not come from coal plants in the US and coal plants are now being mandated to reduce their mercury emissions by between 70% and 90% over the next several years. The most recent calculations from the DOE indicate that, on the average, CFL’s are worse than incandescent bulbs in terms of mercury.
(2) Places like California produce little energy from coal plants, and several states produce none. So any CFL energy reductions will not cut much, if any, mercury there.
(3) The 5mg of mercury generally claimed for CFL’s is largely a goal and not the current reality which is as much as 600% higher for some major manufacturers according to suppliers of CFL’s to the State of New Jersey. All but one of the CFL’s offered had more than 5mg. 
(4) CFL’s are almost all made in China with energy from mostly very dirty coal plants that emit ten times the amount of mercury per KWH as US coal plants emit.
(5) Partly due to the increasing demand for their CFL’s, China is one of the few places left on Earth that still mines specifically for new mercury. And it is unlikely that these mines would meet our environmental and safety standards. Industry and environmentalist estimates are that as much mercury is lost to the environment in the mining, processing and shipping of mercury there as is available for use. Similarly, to meet the increased demand from a massive CFL program in the US and elsewhere, China will need to construct many new manufacturing plants using dirty energy to build and requiring much more dirty power to operate. This in turn will contribute to the need for even more new dirty coal plants.
(6) As much mercury is spilled into the environment in the manufacture of CFL’s in China as goes into the CFL’s according to recent statements from industry and environmentalist representatives.
(7) CFL’s are delivered here on ships using bunker oil, the worst mercury producer of the fuel oils. Not to mention all the other really bad heavy metals and toxics that it emits. Overall, it is 1,000 times dirtier than standard transportation fuel. Again, incandescent bulbs are still mostly made in the US in existing industrial facilities and shipped using cleaner standard fuel.
(8) There is no recycling program in place or planned that could handle the number of CFL’s proposed. Only 2% of CFL’s are recycled. After many years, even the industrial recycling programs only handle about 25% of fluorescent lights, with no verification of how much of the mercury is actually captured. And given the amount of mercury lost to the environment in the production of CFL’s in China, even if ALL CFL’s were recycled there would still be a significant increase in global mercury pollution due to the widespread use of Chinese CFL’s. 
(9) It is likely that if any major recycling program is set up, the CFL’s will be shipped back to China for reprocessing in newly built plants using dirty energy.
(10) States like California are already becoming the recipients of mercury pollution in the atmosphere and the ocean from China.

Thus, when an objective and realistic global lifecycle analysis is made, it is clear that a massive CFL program will put a great deal of additional toxic mercury into the environment and very likely into our kid’s bodies. And the EPA says that a sixth of them already have too much mercury in them. I’m sorry about your local situation, but I don’t want more mercury in my grandkids here in California or other equally worthwhile kids in China.

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By coloradokarl, November 28, 2008 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

The coal that produces power in the plant that lies in the center of Colo.Spgs. Belches 220 Lbs. of mercury into the air every year. Wyoming coal is cheap and plentiful but is some of the dirtiest (mercury) in the world. There is a HUGE power plant north of Rifle Colo. in the no. central Rockies. Our fish are off limits to pregnant women and children are told to only eat trout once a week. This is the sick and twisted world of Corporate America. Through the media they warn us about the mercury in Compact Florescent bulbs (a Micro gram?) and dump tons into our air.

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By Glen Barringer, November 28, 2008 at 7:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It wasn’t until half way through the second page that the reviewer even mentioned the author and book being reviewed. The first part was all self-promotional, driven by a very large ego, screaming “Read MY Book on Mercury. I wrote the definitive study”.

This is why book reviews are rarely assigned to authors who have written on the same subject.

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By Deniz, November 28, 2008 at 7:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Increased consumption of whale meat and blubber, which results in increased exposure to methyl mercury and other contaminants (PCBs), was associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease.

“Impact of dietary exposure to food contaminants on the risk of Parkinson’s disease.”  Petersen MS, Halling J, Bech S, Wermuth L, Weihe P, Nielsen F, Jørgensen PJ, Budtz-Jørgensen E, Grandjean P.  Neurotoxicology. 2008 Jul;29(4):584-90.

However, mercury in fish is 20-times less toxic than mercury vapor continuously released from amalgam fillings, or ethylmercury still used in numerous vaccines.

This is because the mercury has already reactive with tissues and bound to proteins.

It is still something to be concerned about, because mercury has no safe level of exposure, is 10 times more toxic than lead, and is the second most toxic substance known to man.

Additionally, amalgam fillings are responsible for 70-95% of the total mercury in your body.  You should be more worried about amalgams, but all sources are of great concern.

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