How I lost my toxic glow

My mercury contamination level is down to a more healthful level. But I had to give up eating fish to get it there.

Published April 18, 2005 11:02PM (EDT)

I am relieved to report that I am a somewhat less toxic waste dump than I was just a few months ago. In fact, I'm 16 percent less polluted with mercury than I was last fall.

When I first took a hair test to measure my level of mercury contamination, I didn't expect that I'd be in the danger zone. Eating large predatory fish, like tuna, swordfish and shark, is typically the main source of contamination. But I didn't eat much fish.

Nevertheless, the results of my test showed a level of 1.08 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair, just above the limit of 1.00 that the Environmental Protection Agency says is acceptable for a woman my age. Mercury, a neurotoxin, isn't good for anyone. Remember the mad hatters? Eating too much fish laced with mercury can cause symptoms such as fatigue and forgetfulness even in adults. But for women who could become pregnant, it's an even greater concern. Because even if the mother has no symptoms whatsoever, mercury can cause brain damage in a developing fetus that results in learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

After my hair-raising test result came back, I developed an indiscriminant fish phobia, purging it from my diet. I gave away all the cans of tuna in the cupboard. And I avoided sushi bars as if they were dishing radioactive waste in the spicy tuna rolls. It should be noted that this is not what the doctors recommend you do if you're concerned about mercury contamination. The EPA, and even environmentalists, preach a more moderate approach, since not all seafood is equally contaminated.

Public health officials don't want women who are afraid of mercury to lose the myriad health benefits of eating fish, which can be a key source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Instead, they recommend choosing seafood likely to have lower levels of mercury contamination, such as shrimp, squid, scallops and pollock, while avoiding those big predatory fish, like shark and swordfish. A rule of thumb: The longer the fish lives, and the higher is it on the food chain, the more mercury it is likely to carry.

But whether out of fear or just laziness -- OK, I couldn't be bothered to carry around a pocket-size card -- I went to extremes. In the three and a half months between my mercury tests, I ate seafood only twice.

When the results of my second hair test came back, I was rewarded for my ahi abstention: My new reading is 0.91, just under the level that's considered acceptable. A reduction of 0.17 sounds incredibly small. But that's a 16 percent decrease in just a few months. And, more important, it was enough to get me into the range that's considered safe.

Since I made no other change to my diet or lifestyle in those three and a half months, it seems pretty clear that fish was the source of my contamination. "You reduced your consumption, and you saw a significant drop," says Casey Harrell, who runs the energy and toxics campaigns for Greenpeace. "What it shows is the best way to reduce your levels is to reduce your exposure."

So, the apparently happy ending to my own mercury saga is pretty pathetic. I almost entirely gave up fish, one of the most healthful foods you can eat, to lose my toxic glow.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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