Mercury: Hero or Villain?


Imagine the power of the only liquid metal to ever be discovered. It combines forces with other metals to unite and conquer. It’s been used to heal; it’s been used to preserve; it’s been use to create. But how do we know if all of this power is used for good or evil? Introducing mercury: both hero and villain.

Mercury is used in thermometers, fluorescent lights, cavity fillings, and many more common conveniences. In the past it has even been sprinkled on beds of the sick and used to ward off evil (so maybe it is a superhero…).

Mercury is used in thermometers, fluorescent lights, cavity fillings, and many more common conveniences. In the past it has even been sprinkled on beds of the sick and used to ward off evil (so maybe it is a superhero…).

But according to the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers have recently linked exposure to high levels of mercury with permanent brain damage, central nervous system disorders, memory loss, heart disease, kidney failure, liver damage, cancer, loss of vision, loss of sensation and tremors, and/or damage to reproductive and hormonal development of fetuses and infants.
According to Tom Allocco at the NYS Department of Health, consumption of fish is the most common cause of mercury poisoning in humans. In Minimata, Japan throughout the mid-1900s, a chemical plant that manufactured plastic dumped its industrial waste into the Minimata Bay, where many Japanese fishers catch food for civilians. Mercury poisoning officially affected 2,265 Japanese residents because of the episode; but researchers at Kumamoto University in Japan say the number is actually closer to 35,000. Mercury poisoning is known as Minimata disease to this day.

Fish closer to the top of the food chain have a higher concentration of mercury in their blood stream because they ingest mercury from their prey, in addition to living in mercury-polluted water.

What has shed light on the prevalence of mercury poisoning is, unfortunately, the health food movement. Fish is a high-protein, low-calorie option with a number of redeeming nutrients. But with one in six women of childbearing age have high levels of mercury, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, consumers must be careful.

The EPA says the “safe level” of mercury in one’s blood is 5.8 micrograms per liter. The NYS Department of health is notified whenever a person has levels higher than 5 micrograms per liter in his or her blood or 20 micrograms per liter in his or her urine. The state then contacts exposed people to find the source of their exposure, and sends them information on how to reduce their levels.
Bruce Lourie, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, did an experiment where he ate an excessive amount of tuna (a fish with very high mercury levels) for three days. After just 48 hours and three tuna meals, he had more than doubled his mercury levels. He said he felt irritable, in no mood to socialize and noticeably anxious. The mercury had attacked his brain very quickly and effectively.

There are two ways to lower one’s mercury levels: glutathione and chelation therapy. The former is a process that utilizes an IV to inject glutathione (the body’s primary mercury detoxifying molecule) into the mercury-poisoned blood stream. The latter spreads a solution throughout the blood stream that causes the toxins to bind in the bloodstream. Either slowly reduces the mercury levels in a person’s body, and may need to be done multiple times. But the state does not require these treatments, so a person must pursue them privately. Often, insurance does not cover chelation therapy, which ranges from about $75 to $125 per treatment. Glutathione, on the other hand, can be covered by insurance and costs around a dollar per milliliter.

Information about mercury toxicity has been public for years. The fact is that mercury concentrates itself in major organs such as the brain and liver. Its ability to attack the brain makes it one of the most potent neurotoxins known to this day. It destroys neurons and can easily enter body cells because of its simple composure: it is composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which the body readily accepts into its cells. But even with all of this alarming information, it is still used in common materials and consumed by the world population daily.

Cliché as it is, it seems only appropriate to culminate the idea of mercury poisoning with the common expression “everything is good in moderation.” Neither villain nor hero, mercury is present every day, but must be checked on for health reasons.

Input from Avis Richards

Finding out that I had mercury poisoning was shocking, considering I don’t even like fish. I ate fish on occasion because of its health benefits—it is high in protein and low in fat, carbs and sugars—but no more than once or twice a week. I suppose eventually my tuna fish-eating childhood caught up to me.
For a year before I was diagnosed, I knew something was wrong with me. My body constantly ached, as if I was experiencing the flu or symptoms of arthritis. I was tired and had many headaches. I called the New York State Department of Health when I finally could not bear the symptoms much longer. I contacted a specialized doctor that practices integrative medicine to check my blood levels, and the results were astounding. My mercury levels had reach 27! The “safe zone” is below six.

I opted to go through the glutathione therapy and went in for IVs to reduce the mercury in my blood. The IVs reduced my levels all the way down to 4.0 at one point.
I have become aware of the fish I consume now. I choose smaller fish, light tuna or shellfish more. I suggest all fish-eaters (and even those who don’t like fish, like me) watch their seafood intake and check out their mercury levels. It’s a simple process—just a blood test—that can truly improve how you feel each day.

Sari Soffer for Birds Nest Foundation