Mercury poisoning from fish

A fish lover feels the effects of mercury

Published: August 2014

Imax's CEO, Richard Gelfond, still has some problems from mercury exposure.
Photo: Axel Dupeux

Editor's Note: Read Consumer Reports' take on changes the Food and Drug Administration made to its advice on fish consumption for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and young children in January, 2017.

Richard Gelfond liked to play tennis, but he noticed he was having trouble keeping his balance. That’s when he ­decided it was time to seek medical ­advice about the mysterious symptoms he’d been experiencing, which included a feeling of numbness in his lips and ­tingling in his feet.

Gelfond, of New York City, who is chief executive officer of the innovative motion picture company Imax, consulted several doctors, who also were baffled until one of them finally asked him whether he ate a lot of seafood.

He certainly did. Gelfond often had fish for lunch and dinner as part of a low-calorie, low-cholesterol diet. And he primarily ate swordfish, tuna steaks or sushi, and Chilean sea bass, all of which tended to have moderate to high levels of mercury. The blood test his doctor ordered revealed that Gelfond’s mercury level was 13 times as high as the 5.8 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood that EPA officials consider a safe level.

“When my test results finally came back, my balance had gotten so bad I couldn’t cross the street without help, but I never suspected it was caused by all of those tuna steaks, swordfish tacos, sushi lunches, and other fish meals I was eating as part of what I thought was a healthier diet,” Gelfond says.

Read our special report on seafood and mercury. And visit our mercury in seafood resources page for more information on making safer seafood choices. The page includes the Got Mercury? calculator, developed by the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Almost 10 years have passed since he received the diagnosis of mercury poisoning, and Gelfond says he still loves fish. But he’s careful to choose lower-­mercury options such as flounder, scallops, and shrimp, and he opts for sushi made with salmon rather than tuna. Though his blood mercury level has dropped to 15 micrograms, symptoms such as feeling off-balance still occasionally resurface, especially when he is tired.

As a physician and professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Michael Gochfeld, M.D., Ph.D., has been involved in mercury research for 40 years and says he has seen patients suffering mercury poisoning symptoms at blood levels of only 40 or 50 micrograms per liter, but another patient he evaluated recently had no symptoms even though he had a mercury blood level of 150 micrograms from frequent consumption of a variety of fish that he caught himself.

When patients show symptoms, Gochfeld advises that they stop eating fish altogether at first, then begin incorporating low-mercury fish into their diet after their mercury blood levels drop to low levels, which usually occurs within three to six months. For most patients, the symptoms will go away as the mercury level falls, but in serious cases, health might improve but not necessarily return to normal.

Because of his experience, Gelfond provided funding to a center at Stony Brook University in New York to research health effects from dietary exposure to mercury. “I was sure what happened to me could be happening to others,” Gelfond says. “I wanted to raise public awareness about the risks of mercury overexposure for adults so that they could be diagnosed more quickly than I was.”

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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