Mercury Global Warming Conversation Environmental Justice
Photo of Daphne

MY MERCURY POISONING
By Daphne Zuniga
Originally published in O Magazine

Nutritionally, fish may seem like your friend. But the mercury in many fish can cause everything from miscarriage and heart problems in adults to mental retardation in babies. Actress Daphne Zuniga, who was lucky enough to get early treatment, spotlights the growing threat.

Tuna on Rye -- Hold the Mercury, Please
I'm one of the most health-conscious people I know. I do yoga, meditate, hike, run. I love health food, and it doesn't bother me that my friends don't call me for late martini nights. (I promise I'm more fun than I sound.) I don't eat meat, so fish has been my primary source of protein. Tuna on Caesar salad - you can't beat that for lunch. And yellowtail sushi - clean, nutritious, melt-in-your-mouth yummy. Every time I grilled fish or ordered it at a restaurant, I felt I was making a healthy choice.

Then late last year, after learning about the risk of mercury poisoning with a high-fish diet, I got tested. Just for the heck of it; I didn't expect problems. When the doctor told me my numbers were double the normal, "safe" level of mercury, I thought there was a mistake - didn't she know how healthy I was? I asked about the symptoms of mercury poisoning. Muscle aches, I was told, plus blurred vision, depression, inability to concentrate, memory loss, skin rashes. As I listened, I thought, check, check, check. I remembered a morning earlier in the month when I'd awakened to a profound sadness, as if someone I loved had died; I tried to think of a cause but couldn't. I thought of the severe rash I had eight months earlier. I'd eaten sushi three nights the week it broke out, but the doctors couldn't figure out its source, and nothing they prescribed me made it go away, until I ended up in the ER for an adrenaline shot. More recently, lying in bed, my feet and hands started cramping. Then came tingling in my back, neck, and head. Fortunately, I've been spared some other symptoms, including problems with hearing, coordination, heart function, miscarriage, and digestion.

I'd learn about mercury over the years, sort of. When I was little, I was told that a broken thermometer was dangerous. I remember looking at a tiny silver ball right up close, wanting to play with it. My mother obviously didn't know that the vapors from a single broken thermometer can contaminate the air in an entire room. In the past few years, I'd vaguely heard about tuna something-or-other, but there's always some poison to watch out for -- aluminum in pots and antiperspirant, saccharin and cancer, then aspartame, implicated in Alzheimer's or MS or both. I'd think about cutting out this or that culprit, or at least cutting down, but then I'd stop hearing about that toxin and tell myself they must have figured out that it's okay again. I mean, they would tell us if a food were really dangerous, wouldn't they? Warning labels or something.

Well, no. About 6 percent of women of childbearing age have levels of mercury above those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. That means their unborn children are at risk for mental retardation, learning disabilities and impaired hearing. The environmental group Greenpeace and the University of North Carolina at Asheville found much higher numbers (21 percent of women ages 16 to 49, though the group they tested weren't randomly selected, because they had volunteered to participate). The reported: "Our preliminary work, as well as that of other researchers, clearly indicates that virtually no other pollutant is affecting such a large percentage of the U.S. population at levels above established government healthy advisory levels."

Mercury is a potent brain poison. How does so much of it get into our bodies? Industrial pollution - from coal-burning power plants and chemical factoriesódeposits toxins in our rivers, lakes and oceans, where they're ingested by fish. Twenty-one states have consumer advisories on all their freshwater lakes and rivers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that their fish are too poisoned to eat regularly. The American Medical Association recommends that a mercury warning be posted wherever fish is sold, but I've never seen one anywhere.

Detox, my doctor told me, takes about six months. She ordered me to avoid mercury-tinged fish and prescribe an antioxidant mix to help my body excrete the mercury. Twice I've gone in for an IV drip of high-potency vitamin C to strengthen my system for shots of DMPS (a strong chelator, or binding and expulsion agent) every three weeks. Over the past three months, my muscle cramping and chills have subsided, and my funk has lifted.

How can we, as consumers and citizens, protect ourselves?

  1. Ask your doctor for a heavy-metal test of your blood, urine, or hair, and if you test positive, follow the protocol for doctor-supervised detox.
  2. To calculate your own acceptable level of mercury consumption, which varies by weight, go to gotmercury.org.
  3. Participate in the Greenpeace/University of North Carolina study by ordering a mercury test kit for $25 at usa.greenpeace.org/mercury/
  4. Join the Natural Resources Defense Council, Waterkeeper Alliance, or other watchdog organizations to stay informed of legislation, mercury pollution, and actions you can take.
  5. Call or email your senators and representatives, and tell them you don't want mercury in your fish or in your body. Urge them to support legislation that would reduce the mercury emissions from power plants and chemical factories in order to lower the levels in fish.