Many people may remember the “Entourage” star Jeremy Piven ‘s encounter with mercury poisoning, when he was forced to pull out from starring in a Broadway play after complaining of constant fatigue and exhaustion. Tests confirmed that Piven had extremely high levels of Methylmercury caused by the high-fish diet that he was following. His doctor was quoted as saying that the actor’s levels of Methylmercury were “six times the upper limit typically measured.”
While Piven’s case may be somewhat unique (the actor reportedly ate fish twice daily for twenty years), the accumulation of mercury in our systems, and those of the animals and plants that we eat, is now a daily reality, a fact confirmed by the recent study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (“USGS”) .
The USGS study found that all fish tested from 291 freshwater streams across the United States was contaminated with mercury. In fact, according to Reuters, more than 66% of the fish was contaminated at levels higher than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “level of concern for fish-eating mammals,” and more than 25% of the fish were contaminated at levels higher than those set as the threshold for human consumption.
Mercury, a heavy metal, is a potent neurotoxin that builds up in the food chain at ever higher concentrations in predators such as large fish and humans. While mercury is especially damaging to the developing nervous systems of fetuses and children, it can also have adverse effects on adults. Toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidney, and lungs.
This pollutant enters the environment as atmospheric emissions, predominantly from industrial processes, such as the burning of coal for electricity (although volcanic eruptions also contribute to the presence of mercury in the atmosphere). In humans, the consumption of fish is considered the most significant source of ingestion-related mercury exposure. Plants and livestock also contain mercury due to accumulation of mercury from soil, water and atmosphere, as well as ffrom ingesting other mercury containing organisms. Exposure to mercury can occur from breathing contaminated air, from eating foods containing mercury residues from processing, such as can occur with high-fructose corn syrup, from exposure to mercury vapor in mercury amalgam dental restorations and from improper use or disposal of mercury and mercury-containing objects, for example, after spills of elemental mercury or improper disposal of fluorescent lamps.
While earlier this year the Obama administration said it would begin crafting new regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants, it will be a while before any changes will result in actual decline of mercury pollution.