(Note: this is my fourth post about the pollution that living in the modern world has left inside my own body. If you're just joining the conversation about this personal "body burden", I recommend starting with my first post on the subject and then reading about my test results for BPA and lead).
Known aptly as quicksilver, mercury is a rarity in the atomic world: It's one of only six elements that exist in liquid form at room temperature. Those who encounter this heavy metal behold an alien water-like fluid whose perfect reflectivity and slippery refusal to leave any trace behind makes it seem almost alive.
Once upon a time, mercury was a familiar substance in virtually every home. It was found in thermometers, mirrors and first aid kits (remember Mercurochrome?), but when its many dangers became known, it faded from view and assumed a more hidden role in industrial processes, electronics manufacturing, and fluorescent light bulbs.
While we may not see much mercury any more, it's still out there surrounding us in unseen ways and slipping inside our bodies. I know because medical tests have told me that far too much of it has slipped inside my own.
According to my body burden analysis, I'm carrying 9.91 micrograms of methyl mercury and 12 micrograms of total mercury (including the methyl form) per liter of blood. This is a staggeringly high amount. In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tells me that only 1% of Americans have more of this toxin in their bodies than I do.
It's usually good to be number one at something, but this is not it, and I find the news somewhat frightening. Out of all my body burden test results, this is the most surprising and alarming. My mercury levels are more than 50% greater than the federal safety standard of 5.8 micrograms per liter of blood set for pregnant women, infants, and children, a limit that many experts think are too generous. My contamination is so high that my body burden report urges me to talk to my doctor about it, advice that's offered in the case of no other contaminant.
Much of my body burden comes from a compound called methyl mercury, which is created when a mercury atom bonds with a hydrocarbon. Methyl mercury is a very persistent pollutant, and it comes almost exclusively from the burning of fossil fuels, specifically coal.
Both elemental and methyl mercury are potent poisons that can cause birth defects, developmental delays and disorders, cognitive impairment, motor difficulties, and brain and nervous system dysfunction. They've also been linked to immune system problems and cardiovascular disease.
How did my body come to bear so much of something so dangerous? That's an easy question to answer. Some of the mercury inside me likely comes from my numerous dental fillings and from vaccines that used mercury-based preservatives. But the lion's share no doubt comes from seafood.
I am a prodigious fish eater. It's one of my favorite foods, and the thing I'm most likely to order when I eat out, which I do a lot because I'm on the road so much. But fish, as we've all heard, is often contaminated by the vast amounts of mercury pollution that ultimately end up in our oceans, lakes, and ponds.
That's a problem because that mercury is bioaccumulative. Once it gets inside an organism, including human beings, it tends to stay for awhile and accumulate as additional amounts are encountered. It goes like this: Little fish eat a little bit of mercury; Bigger fish eat a bunch of little fish and in turn are eaten by the biggest fish. At each meal the mercury adds up until it's traveled all the way up the food chain to saturate the animals at the top. And as the last in that line, I've got the biggest body burden of all.
The good news is that my cargo of mercury will lessen over time. Unlike chemicals that can remain in the body for years, mercury is eventually sent packing. I've learned that the human body eliminates half of the mercury it contains over the course of about two months. So if I don't eat any more, my levels will drop 50% in about eight weeks and 75% in eight more.
The trick will be to avoid further exposures. To do that, I'll be asking my dentist to use mercury-free filings in the future and requesting mercury-free flu shots and other vaccines from my doctor. I'm also going to use this seafood guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council and eat only those fish with a low mercury risk.
Steps like these, especially the dietary changes, (no more tuna sushi, swordfish steaks, or tilefish filets) will hopefully combine with my body's natural processes to restore my health and prevent any problems. In the meantime, my present body burden is all the evidence we need to demand that our governments do whatever it takes right now to force industry, power plants, incinerators, and other sources of mercury pollution to clean up their act and stop pumping this deadly metal into our air, waters, and soil. Mercury is so toxic to life and so hazardous to our kids, that we should have zero tolerance for it. We don't need to reduce our exposure. We need to eliminate it. Ours should be a mercury-free world. That's the only goal that's acceptable, and achieving it is going to put everyone's mettle to the test.
To learn more about mercury pollution and participate in efforts to stop it, visit the Environmental Working Group and the Mercury Policy Project. To find out more about body burdens, check out the EWG's work on the subject.