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Richard Ellis on ‘Diagnosis: Mercury’

Posted on Nov 28, 2008

By Richard Ellis

(Page 2)

The following information comes directly the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site:

        “Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water and soil. It exists in several forms: elemental or metallic mercury, inorganic mercury compounds, and organic mercury compounds. Pure mercury is a liquid metal, sometimes referred to as quicksilver that volatizes readily. When coal is burned, mercury is released into the environment. Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 40 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions. EPA has estimated that about one-quarter of U.S. emissions from coal-burning power plants are deposited within the contiguous U.S. and the remainder enters the global cycle. Burning hazardous wastes, producing chlorine, breaking mercury products, and spilling mercury, as well as the improper treatment and disposal of products or wastes containing mercury, can also release it into the environment.


book cover


Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison


By Jane M. Hightower


Island Press, 326 pages


Buy the book


    “Mercury in the air eventually settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can change it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish. Fish and shellfish are the main sources of methylmercury exposure to humans. Methylmercury builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others. The levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish depend on what they eat, how long they live and how high they are in the food chain.”

Mercury begins its journey upward from the moment it lands on the bottom of the sea (or a river or lake), where it is absorbed by bacteria and converted to methylmercury, after which the now toxic bacteria are ingested by small animals, which themselves are eaten by larger and larger animals until we reach the pinnacle of the food chain, the big fish. These large fish are recognized as the natural pinnacle of the food chain, but, of course, in the same way that humans provide the mercury that works up the food chain, humans have also replaced the big fish as the apex predators. In other words, we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the deadly system we created.

The largest fish—tuna, swordfish, marlins, some sharks—are the top of the food chain, the apex predators. Yellowfin and bigeye tuna are the red-meat tunas that are popularly served in restaurants as grilled tuna steaks, tuna carpaccio, tuna teriyaki and, of course, tuna sushi and sashimi. As top predators (yellowfin and big eye tunas can be six feet long and weigh 400 pounds), these fish have a significant mercury content. The bluefin, the largest tuna of all, will naturally have the most mercury, but because the primary destination for bluefins caught around the world is Japan, Americans don’t give much thought to the mercury content of maguro. For the Japanese market, the bluefin is being so heavily fished in the Mediterranean (a bluefin spawning area) that the World Wildlife Fund has called for a complete shutdown of the tuna fisheries to save the remaining tuna from extinction.

There are fish that are safe to eat. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch  lists every seafood item regularly consumed in America, and tells you whether it’s safe to eat, ecologically or toxicologically. Among the “Best Choices” are Alaska halibut, anchovies, Arctic char (farmed), bluefish, Pacific cod (the Atlantic cod has been fished to near-extinction), sole, herring, mackerel, Atlantic dorado (mahi-mahi), wild salmon and sardines. In other words, there are plenty of other fish in the sea (and in restaurants); you shouldn’t be eating tuna for health reasons—the tuna’s or yours.

  Late in 2008, Island Press published Jane Hightower’s “Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison.” Hightower is a San Francisco doctor whose patients included a woman who complained that “her house seemed to be making her sick;” her symptoms included fatigue, headache, trouble concentrating and hair loss. She felt as if she had a hangover; sometimes she couldn’t get out of bed for a couple of days. To Dr. Hightower’s questions about her diet, the woman said she was a vegetarian and didn’t eat meat, but she ate fish—tuna, swordfish, sushi, sea bass, halibut—at least nine times a week. Testing her, Hightower found that her blood mercury level was 26.0 mcg/l (micrograms per liter), 26 times higher than the EPA guidelines.

      A couple brought their 7-year-old son to see Hightower because the boy was experiencing stomachaches, headaches and lethargy, and he turned red when he was in a warm bath. The parents told Hightower that they believed that fish was good for you, so they had been feeding their son canned albacore and yellowfin tuna steadily since he was two. The boy was tested, and found to have a mercury level of about 15mcg/l. When the boy was taken off this dangerous, all-fish diet, his health improved. But, says Hightower, “He will most likely need special education and help for the rest of his life, as he still has difficulty with schoolwork, language skills and social skills.”

Even now, the only warnings given to potential consumers of tuna can be found on the EPA Web site, where pregnant women and nursing mothers are told not to eat tuna because their babies, born and unborn, are susceptible to mercury poisoning. On its “Seafood Watch” handout, based on factors that include species endangerment and human endangerment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium says that one should avoid bluefin tuna.

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By Eye Laser Treatment, June 8, 2011 at 8:49 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 2:56 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 1:09 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 1:16 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 8:29 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 7:48 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 5:59 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 7:12 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 7:10 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 6:54 pm Link to this comment

OUCH!! grandpa Ed….That hurt!

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By skulz fontaine, November 28, 2008 at 6:46 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 5:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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 4:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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 9:11 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 6:43 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 6:29 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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