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Richard Ellis on ‘Diagnosis: Mercury’

Posted on Nov 28, 2008

By Richard Ellis

(Page 3)

      In her book, Dr. Hightower reports that albacore tuna has three times the mercury content of “light meat” tuna, which is skipjack, a small tuna canned by the billions and found on supermarket shelves around the world. “White meat tuna” sounds somehow better than ordinary “light meat tuna,” but in fact, it contains more mercury. From the EPA Web site:

“Outbreaks of methylmercury poisoning have made it clear that adults, children, and developing fetuses are at risk from dietary exposure to methylmercury. During these poisoning outbreaks, some mothers with no symptoms of nervous system damage gave birth to infants with severe disabilities and it became clear that the developing nervous system of the fetus may be more vulnerable to methylmercury than is the adult nervous system. Mothers who are exposed to methylmercury and breast-feed their babies may also expose their infant children through their milk.”


book cover


Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison


By Jane M. Hightower


Island Press, 326 pages


Buy the book


There are no warnings on cans of tuna, and hardly any in restaurants. Of course, the absence of certain fish species on restaurant menus would serve as an implicit warning, but how is the customer to know that? Because of overfishing, Caroline Bennett of London’s Moshi Moshi restaurant chain serves no bluefin in her conveyor-belt sushi bars—and says so.

    Thanks to the marine conservation group Oceana, warnings are beginning to appear in supermarkets. Oceana “campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans by winning specific and concrete policy changes to reduce pollution and to prevent the irreversible collapse of fish populations, marine mammals and other sea life.” Its current projects include halting the slaughter of sea turtles, stopping offshore drilling, banning Mediterranean drift-netting, protecting sharks from finning, saving bluefin tuna, and encouraging supermarkets to post signs warning of the dangers of mercury in fish.

    According to Oceana’s Jacqueline Savitz, “We now have convinced 36% of major grocery stores in the U.S. to post signs.” Among the chains now posting signs that contain the FDA warnings are Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Kroger, Harris Teeter, Costco, Albertson’s (SuperValu owned) and Safeway, and they are working on Wal-Mart, the world’s largest publicly owned corporation. A typical sign, posted adjacent to the canned fish display shelves, reads:


Pregnant and nursing women, women who may become

pregnant and young children should not eat the following fish:


They should also limit their consumption of other fish including


    Notice that there is no mention of mercury, the reason for the warning in the first place. Is this because the supermarkets don’t want to frighten their customers? Because the fishing industry doesn’t want any of their products to be associated with mercury?

Because everyone knows that mercury is poison, one would assume that there would be some sort of guideline posted somewhere about what a “safe” level might be—assuming there was a safe level. But as Dr. Hightower learned, the “guidelines” are often vague, inconclusive and largely unavailable to the fish-consuming public. When Hightower questioned a research scientist at the California Department of Public Health, she was told that “a blood mercury level of 200 mcg/l was OK in adults.” That was four to 10 times what she had been seeing in her patients, and 40 times the ceiling recommended by the EPA.

    When Dr. Hightower looked up mercury poisoning in a medical textbook, she learned that the symptoms included insomnia, nervousness, mild tremor, impaired judgment and coordination, decreased mental efficiency, emotional liability, headache, fatigue, loss of sex drive and depression, as well as severe paresthesias (prickling or tingling sensation of the skin), trouble speaking, trouble walking, tunnel vision, hearing loss, blindness, microcephaly (small brain size at birth), spasticity, paralysis and coma. In the “Cecil Textbook of Medicine,” she found that the “reference range”—what is considered the maximum acceptable to maintain good health—was less than 50 mcg/l for whole blood. No further information as to diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and so forth was included in the textbook.

“Diagnosis Mercury” is not only about Dr. Hightower’s patients. It is about mercury poisoning in general. In the late 1950s, in Minamata, Japan, 1,700 people died and thousands more showed aggravated symptoms of mercury poisoning after eating fish from the bay where the Chisso chemical plant was spewing mercury effluent into the water. Originally published in Japanese in 1977, Akio Mishima’s “Bitter Sea: The Human Cost of Minamata Disease,” was reissued in English in 1992. In the introduction, we read:

“As a result of the bay’s pollution with toxic organic mercury, many people were stricken with a terrible syndrome in the 1950s. Minamata disease, as it came to be known, is characterized by numbness of the extremities and the area around the mouth, constriction of the field of vision, loss of hearing, motor and speech disorders, loss of muscle coordination, convulsions, and sometimes mental aberrations, People congenitally afflicted with the disease are often mentally retarded.”

“Bitter Sea” incorporates photographs of the plant, the victims and the protesters, which serve as a painful testimony to the horrors of mercury poisoning. In 1972, more than a decade after the poisoning of Minamata Bay had been recognized, American photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) went to Japan to document the gruesome story of Minamata Bay. Although he succeeded—his photographs are heartbreaking—goons from the Chisso Chemical Co. beat him so severely that he was partially blinded and never fully recovered his sight. 

Between 1962 and 1970, two communities in northwest Ontario, Canada, were warned that fish caught in the English-Wabigoon river system had record-high levels of mercury from a chemical plant up the river. By the mid-1980s, local Indian tribes received a compensation package of almost $17 million from the Dryden Chemical Co. and the provincial and federal governments. They are still advised not to eat fish from the river. Almost everybody agrees that mercury is bad for your health.

After reading “Diagnosis Mercury,” I have concluded that there really is no “safe” level of mercury, and I’m going to stop eating tuna. Why would anyone want to continue ingesting such a deadly substance? Let me repeat the symptoms of mercury poisoning: insomnia, nervousness, mild tremor, impaired judgment and coordination, decreased mental efficiency, emotional liability, headache, fatigue, loss of sex drive, and depression … severe paresthesias, trouble speaking, trouble walking, tunnel vision, hearing loss, blindness, microcephaly, spasticity, paralysis and coma.

I’m going to tell my children to stop eating tuna, and anybody else who will listen. It’s not likely that the Japanese, who buy and consume thousands of tons of bluefin tuna annually, will be scared off by mercury warnings, but it is fantastic (as in “fantasy”) to think that if enough people stop eating tuna, the fishermen would not be able to sell their catch, they would stop fishing, and the endangered bluefin would be saved from extinction. Maybe this is just a mercury-induced hallucination (until very recently, I’d eaten as much tuna as anyone), but I hereby endorse the publication and frightening conclusions of “Diagnosis Mercury.” I am tempted to quote the entire book, but the best I can do is recommend that you read it.

Richard Ellis is a celebrated marine artist and the author of more than a dozen books. He was written and illustrated articles for numerous magazines, including Audubon, National Geographic, Discover, Smithsonian and Scientific American. His newest book, on the plight of the polar bear, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2009.


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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
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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
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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
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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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