The dangers of mercury poisoning—are you at risk?
Maybe you first heard of mercury poisoning when actor Jeremy Piven pulled out of a Broadway engagement at the insistence of his doctor. Complaining of extreme fatigue, Piven asked for bloodwork and his physician, Carlon Colker, MD, of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, found that the levels of mercury in Piven’s blood were “almost six times the upper limit of normal and allowable. It’s the highest level I’ve ever seen,” he told People magazine at the time.
What was the cause of Piven’s mysterious affliction? Too much sushi. And he’s not alone. In an effort to gain the health benefits of seafood, many of us are exposed to unsafe levels of the heavy metal toxin mercury. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, approximately 2.3 percent of women between the ages of 16 and 49 had blood mercury concentrations of more than 5.8 micrograms per liter. According to the EPA’s website, “an estimated 1.4 million women of reproductive age…have blood mercury concentrations that may increase the risk of learning disabilities in their unborn children. Based on this prevalence and the number of U.S. births each year, it is estimated that more than 75,000 newborns each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in-utero exposure to methylmercury.”
Fish isn’t the only way mercury makes its way into our systems. The metal can be found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fillings in our mouths—even the cosmetics we put on our skin. It is insidious by nature of its varied chemical forms and ability to accumulate in our bodies. Even minute levels of this toxin are now associated with diseases and disorders, especially those of the brain, from dementias to lowered IQs.
Mercury is the only metal that is a liquid at room temperature and that evaporates easily into the air. We are exposed to this form through dental amalgams. Methylmercury (often just referred to as mercury) is a toxic and reactive form of mercury synthesized by anaerobic bacteria that live in aquatic systems.
Methylmercury enters our food supply through the aquatic food chain, from bacteria on up to the fish that we consume. According to the USGS Mercury Research Team, along each step of this chain, the concentration of methylmercury increases up to 1 million times through a process known as bio-magnification. There are over 23,000 research articles on the “ecotoxicology” of mercury.
Methylmercury, once ingested, is able to shuttle throughout our bodies. It attaches to proteins and essential amino acids where it can enter the brain and cross the placenta, impacting a developing fetus (hence, why pregnant women are cautioned to be extra careful). Its ability to bind to proteins and travel to different organs makes it difficult for the body to remove.
History reports serious disease from mercury exposure. When hat-makers used liquid mercury to cure fur pelts, they experienced debilitating neurological effects—thus the term “mad hatter.” MIT scientists estimate that, over the last 4000 years, use of mercury released 350,000 tons into air, land, and water, where its toxicity hurts human health and Earth’s sensitive biosphere.
Yes mercury, especially methylmercury, is very toxic to us. So what can we do about it?
Step 1 is to prevent unnecessary exposure. Avoid metal fillings at the dentist in favor of ceramic ones (you can even have existing amalgam fillings replaced). Avoid the “Big 7” fishes—Marlin, Orange roughy, Tilefish, Swordfish, Shark, Mackerel, and Tuna—these contain the most mercury. Consume fish as low as possible in the food chain: Krill, for example, is a safer source of Omega-3 fatty acids than tuna. If you do choose to eat fish known to be high in mercury, adhere to the FDA’s recommended limits: A person who weighs 170 pounds should eat no more than 5.3 ounces per week. If you’re still fearful of consuming fish, but want the nutritional benefit of Omega 3’s, choose supplements—most manufacturers remove all mercury from their products. However, the benefits of eating fish often outweigh the detrimental effects of the mercury, especially combined with mercury-fighting foods.
Step 2 is treatment. Mercury is challenging to remove from the body because it distributes itself throughout the body’s tissues. In healthy people, the concentration of mercury drops by about half every 30-60 days. Good nutrition, with an emphasis on healthy fats and other foods that reduce inflammation, speeds up the rate of mercury loss. Supplementing with minerals, especially magnesium and selenium, also increases mercury excretion. Be sure to follow the USRDA for selenium, as it can be toxic at high doses. Finally, mercury is generally attracted to sulfur-containing substances, so eating them may help the system flush out the toxic metal. Foods high in sulfur and other foods that help remove mercury include whey protein, egg yolks, dairy, vegetables (especially those of the broccoli and cabbage families), polyphenols (cocoa, grape seed extract), and molasses. Lipoic acid has been shown, by its ability to increase cellular glutathione levels (glutathione is a sulfur-containing antioxidant), to support the mobilization and excretion of mercury, and to decrease cellular damage and neurotoxicity. Ask your doctor about the safety of supplementing with lipoic acid, and for recommendations on dosage. Research on chlorella is promising for mercury removal, but is only proven to work in mice thus far.
Chelation therapy removes mercury from the blood, but not from the cells. When it is removed from the blood, the cells release more mercury, cutting the half-life of mercury retention from 30 or more days to 17 days. The best way to get success using chelation therapy is do it regularly, but at the cost to other vital minerals because the method is non-specific. A much better approach is to focus on optimizing our natural detox systems.
Finally, mercury and other heavy metals (and plenty of salts) are released from our bodies through sweat. Some argue that infrared saunas increase the release of mercury through the pores of our skin. My preferred way to purge our bodies is to drink plenty of water and exercise. That way you enjoy a multitude of benefits, one of which is the expulsion of mercury. Jeremy Piven's Doc: Star Stricken by Toxins from Sushi