Remember the Mad Hatter in Louis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”? Why should a hatter be mad (insane, not angry)? Because the felt of the hats in old England was cured in mercury, and the hatters were chronically exposed to mercury fumes. They developed the classical symptoms of mercury poisoning: neurological damage, confused speech, and impaired vision. So far, not so different from your favorite politician. But as concentrations of the poison go up with time, psychosis and hallucinations set in.
This little gem came to mind when I read an interesting story in the New York Times. The paper ran a little experiment: They bought sushi in 20 establishments in Manhattan, both sushi bars and high-end food stores. Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the FDA could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. All the offending sushi contained bluefin tuna.
What’s the problem with mercury?
Not much wrong with mercury the element (the thing in thermometers). But in its organic form as methylmercury, it can wreak havoc on the nervous system, especially when it is in its developmental stage, namely fetal and early childhood. Over the past several years, studies have suggested that mercury may also cause health problems in adults, including increased risks of cardiovascular disease and neurological symptoms.
Mercury gets concentrated in the body, and the bigger the animal and the higher in the food chain, the higher the concentration of methylmercury. For instance, algae have quite low concentrations, but the fish that eat them have higher levels, and the big fish that eat the little fish have higher levels yet.
Most of the mercury originates from burning high-sulfur coal, which is used extensively in power plants around the world. The reason there is so much mercury in the oceans and lakes is that methylmercury, the product of this combustion, is soluble in water.
Two things struck me as worthy of additional comment.
- A number of studies have found high blood mercury levels in people eating a diet rich in seafood. According to a 2007 survey by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the average level of mercury in New Yorkers’ blood is three times higher than the national average. The report found especially high levels among Asian New Yorkers, especially foreign-born Chinese, and people with high incomes. The report noted that Asians tend to eat more seafood, and it speculated that wealthier people favored fish, like swordfish and bluefin tuna, that happen to have higher mercury levels.
How interesting; wealthy people are more prone to eat fish high in mercury. Do they exhibit more neurological and cognitive impairment than the middle class? I am not joking; there is a precedent for that. The ancient Romans imported their wine from a place in Portugal called Oporto. It was a sweet dessert wine, which is today’s Port wine. The wine was expensive because it had to be imported, so only the wealthy could afford it in any quantities. Problem was, the wine was stored in ceramic vessels that had been fired inadequately, or not at all. This caused the lead in the vessel wall to leach into the wine. Bone biopsies of aristocratic Romans showed toxic levels of lead. Did this chronic poisoning of aristocratic leadership contribute to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Gibbons missed the point when he pinned the blame on Christianity.
- The other point is much more serious. How is it that a newspaper runs toxicological tests? Where is the FDA? And the EPA? Why are the agencies, that are supposed to ensure that what we eat is not going to poison us, missing in action?
Dr. P. Michael Bolger, a toxicologist who is head of the chemical hazard assessment team at the Food and Drug Administration, did not comment on the findings in the Times sample but said the agency was reviewing its seafood mercury warnings. Because it has been four years since the advisory was issued, Dr. Bolger said, “we have had a study underway to take a fresh look at it.” A study to have a study? What is simpler than to take food samples and run a toxicology panel on them?
Is it your typical government ineptitude? I think something more serious is at play—politics of the worst kind. No government agency regularly tests seafood for mercury. Why? Because this administration is ideologically dedicated to the notion that all regulation is bad; it muzzles any governmental scientific report that is not to it ideological liking. The EPA was fighting in court to allow higher concentrations of mercury in drinking water, despite voluminous evidence provided by its own scientists that it can cause neurological toxicity in pregnant women and young children. You read it right! Even the judge was incredulous.
As all presidential candidates, of both parties, repeat ad nauseam: It’s time for a change!