Mercury Toxicity: Malady or Myth?

Mercury Toxicity: Malady or Myth?

Julian Whitaker, MD

In 2008, Jeremy Piven, best known for his portrayal of a brash, obnoxious agent on HBO’s Entourage, dropped out of a Broadway play. His physician reported that the actor was suffering with debilitating fatigue and neuromuscular problems due to “extreme mercury toxicity.”

Given the vitriolic attacks he’s since endured, you’d think Piven had announced that he’d grown a second head or an extra arm. His diagnosis has been ridiculed by physicians, commentators, and colleagues, and he’s been accused of everything from lying to malingering to undermining the show. The play’s producers have filed a grievance over his departure, and playwright David Mamet quipped, “So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”

If Piven’s fatigue and weakness had been caused by cancer, heart disease, or most any other condition, he would have been blanketed with concern and support. Heavy metal toxicity, however, gets no respect. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bona fide—and often overlooked—medical problem.

Real Diagnosis, Effective Therapy

Piven’s symptoms of unrelenting fatigue, neuromuscular problems in his arms and legs, and dizziness are typical signs of mercury toxicity. Like most affected patients, his symptoms came on gradually and got progressively worse. Months before he left the play, this seasoned actor saw a doctor because of exhaustion and difficulty remembering his lines. This doctor tested him for heavy metals and, finding that his mercury level was off the charts, recommended that he begin a course of chelation.

Chelation therapy removes heavy metals from the body. Although the best-known chelating agent is EDTA, it has no affinity for mercury, so other chelating agents are used. The most popular are DMPS, which is administered intravenously, and DMSA, which is taken orally on a specific schedule. During a treatment course, it is important that patients follow a nutritional supplement and lifestyle program that helps the body detoxify and protects against mobilized toxins.

Detoxification is not an overnight cure. It is a slow process that requires repeat treatments, and symptoms sometimes get worse before they get better. Piven eventually ended up in the hospital, and that’s when, based on advice from three physicians, he left the show. He’s now undergoing treatment and trying to recuperate—when he’s not defending his diagnosis to his producers and Good Morning America.

Mercury Is a Potent Toxin

I don’t understand why there’s so much resistance to the concept of mercury toxicity. This isn’t some hocus-pocus, made-up diagnosis. Mercury’s toxicity is detailed in the medical literature. OSHA recognizes it as an occupational hazard, the EPA classifies it as an environmental toxin, and the FDA warns against its presence in food.

Here are the facts. Mercury exists in three primary forms, and all of them are noxious. Elemental mercury, the silver liquid in thermometers, vaporizes at room temperature and when inhaled heads straight for the central nervous system, where it can cause psychosis and other problems. Inorganic mercury, which is combined with other elements, is not only neurotoxic but also damages the kidneys.

Organic mercury, the most dangerous type, easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and accumulates in tissues throughout the body. Fatigue, concentration difficulties, memory loss, and impairments in speech, coordination, and sensation are common neurological symptoms. But organic mercury can also depress the immune and endocrine systems, harm the liver and kidneys, and cause cardiovascular problems. It crosses the placenta as well, and places unborn children at risk.

Reduce Your Mercury Exposure

Acute poisoning is rare, even in industries that require working with mercury. However, as you can see, chronic low-level exposure also poses dangers.

Mercury is released into the environment from coal-burning emissions, industrial waste, broken thermometers and fluorescent lights, and a wide range of consumer goods. It makes up at least half of the metal in “silver” amalgam fillings, which release toxic mercury vapor. It’s also used as a preservative in some cosmetics and vaccines. (This preservative, thimerosal, is particularly problematic in vaccines because it is metabolized into an organic form called ethylmercury.)

To protect yourself and your family, avoid obvious sources of environmental mercury. Dispose of thermometers and fluorescent bulbs appropriately. Request composite or other amalgam-free fillings—and if you have severe mercury toxicity, consider having your existing amalgams removed. Use natural cosmetics. Make sure the vaccines your children receive do not contain thimerosal. Be selective about the types of fish you eat. And finally, read food labels closely—there’s even mercury in high-fructose corn syrup!

Prime Suspect: Fish

The leading source of mercury exposure in this country is the methylmercury found in seafood. Methylmercury is formed when environmental mercury makes its way into our oceans, lakes, rivers, and soils, where microorganisms transform it into this highly toxic organic compound.

Mercury concentrations increase as you go up the aquatic food chain. Long-lived, predatory species such as shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish have such high levels that the FDA and EPA recommend pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, children, and women of childbearing age avoid them altogether. The agencies also advise that this group limit consumption of albacore or “white” canned tuna to six ounces per week, and all fish to no more than 12 ounces weekly. These are good recommendations, but they don’t go far enough.

The “Sushi Defense”

Jeremy Piven attributed his mercury poisoning to sushi consumption. He stated that fish had been his sole source of animal protein for 20 years, and he often ate sushi twice a day.

Although many snickered at the “sushi defense,” it makes perfect sense. Thin slices of raw tuna are among the most popular of all sushi dishes, and this type of tuna should be on the FDA/EPA hit list.

Last year, the New York Times had a lab test the mercury levels of tuna sushi samples from 20 restaurants and stores in the city. They found that eating just six pieces a week would drive mercury levels above the EPA’s recommended upper limits. No one should eat fish with this much mercury.

Bottom line, regardless of your age and sex, stay away from all fish that have a high mercury content. Wild Pacific salmon, sardines, ocean perch, tilapia, pollock, flounder, shrimp, crab, clams, and oysters have much lower levels and may be eaten several times a week.

Other Protective Measures

DMSA and DMPS, the chelating agents I described earlier, require a physician’s prescription and supervision. But there are other things you can do to reduce your toxic load. Compounds that help mobilize and remove mercury include chlorella, cilantro, zeolite, and PectaSol Chelation Complex. PectaSol, a combination of modified citrus pectin and seaweed chelators, has been shown in published case studies to reduce mercury and lead levels by an average of 74 percent after several months of use. Sulfur-containing compounds, such as garlic and MSM, also facilitate detoxification, and antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium protect the brain and other tissues during this process.

Unfortunately, while most doctors are aware of acute heavy metal toxicity, they dismiss the idea that chronic exposure is a health menace. This ignorance is hurting patients.

Jeremy Piven is lucky he found a physician who is knowledgeable about mercury toxicity. If you are suffering with chronic fatigue, pain, or other symptoms that you just can’t get a handle on, make a beeline to a doctor who knows how to test for, and treat, this problem. If you can’t find one, come see us.


  • To learn more about becoming a patient and receiving testing or treatment for mercury toxicity at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (866) 944-8253.
  • To enhance detox on your own, eat two or three cloves of garlic and several tablespoons of chopped cilantro, or their supplemental equivalents, daily. Use chlorella, zeolite, PectaSol Chelation Complex, and MSM as directed. For antioxidant support, make sure you’re also taking a good multivitamin supplement.

  • Diner BM, et al. Toxicity, mercury. Emedicine by Web MD Web site. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/819872-overview. Accessed January 26, 2009.
  • Eliaz I, et al. Integrative medicine and the role of modified citrus pectin/alginates in heavy metal chelation and detoxification—five case reports. Forsch Komplementmed. 2007 Dec;14(6):358–364.
  • Marikar S, et al. Jeremy Piven defends play departure due to mercury poisoning. ABC News. 2009 15 Jan. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Story?id=6652551&page=1. Accessed January 26, 2009.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

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