mercury rising

Yummy!Jen-Luc Poor Jeremy Piven. First, the Emmy-award-winning Entourage star made headlines in December after he bowed out of the Broadway run of David Mamet's Speed the Plow, less than two months after it opened to strong reviews, citing high mercury levels in his system — ostensibly from eating too much sushi. At least that's the story as told by the actor and his doctors. His erstwhile castmates were less than sympathetic, murmuring about long nights partying and hinting that Piven just got bored by the daily grind of a nightly theater performance and wanted out of his contract. Mamet himself, when asked about the high mercury level excuse, sniped to Daily Variety: "My understanding is that [Piven] is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer." Oh, snap! (Jen-Luc Piquant has made a mental note never to piss off David Mamet.)

But the show must go on, and Piven was eventually replaced by the always delightful William H. Macy. That might have been the end of it had news not just broken on Friday that the producers of Speed the Plow have filed a grievance against Piven with the Actor's Equity Association for his hasty departure. Piven, meanwhile, has been doing damage control, appearing on "Good Morning America" to  reiterate the seriousness of his condition. Per a statement from his publicist, "He withdrew from the play due to medical necessity on the advice of his doctors, after he was hospitalized and warned by his physicians that enforced rest was necessary in order to avoid serious medical problems, including a heart attack." 

So Piven has unwittingly become the poster boy for mercury poisoning — which is indeed a serious matter, whatever his sniggering naysayers may think. The technical term for his condition is hydrargaria, and it includes such unpleasant symptoms as peripheral vision impairment, speech impairment, muscle weakness, memory loss, "pins and needles" in the hands and feet, insomnia, and poor coordination.

And yes, Piven's publicist is correct: it also causes tachycardia (faster than normal heart rate), with an increased risk of heart attack. How might all of this manifest in an actor? Well, let's see: lack of sleep, missed rehearsals, irritability, problems remembering lines — all things that aren't likely to endear said actor to his fellow thespians. Piven was fortunate he was only ordered to rest; severe heavy metal poisoning often requires extensive chelation therapy.

There are lots of ways to get mercury poisoning: breathing contaminated air from coal plants, or by inadvertently absorbing it through the skin (it is common used in chemical labs, hospitals, dental clinics, and the manufacture of batteries and fluorescent light bulbs). But really — getting mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi? Well, yeah. That's actually the most common ingestion-related source of mercury exposure in human beings, because mercury is a common environmental toxin, both naturally occurring, and that released by humans into air, landfills, and water. There are mercury deposits in the oceans (higher levels in the Mediterranean than in the Atlantic or Pacific), and it gets into the fish, we eat the fish, and so on. Mercury poisoning it can lead to severe neurological problems if the exposure is long enough, and in high enough doses. Per the Huffington Post:

"The methylmercury in fish passes readily from the human gut to the bloodstream and on into all organs and tissues. It seems to act most powerfully on the brain because the compound is strongly attracted to fatty molecules called lipids, and the brain has the highest lipid content of any organ. Methylmercury crosses the protective blood-brain barrier by binding with an essential amino acid that has dedicated carrier proteins for shunting it into brain cells. Once inside brain cells, some of it gets converted to an inorganic form that sticks to and disables many structural proteins and enzymes essential to cell function."

It's understandable that folks might be skeptical, particularly those whom Piven may have alienated with his increasingly moody behavior. (Incidentally, mood swings are another symptom of high mercury levels — or maybe success just went to his head after all those years playing second fiddle as John Cusack's wise-cracking wingman.) Tabloids have been buzzing with various tales of boorish acts committed by Piven for over a year — like the time Piven crashed Nobu in Aspen with a large group (no reservation), and stiffed his waiter, leaving a DVD of Entourage Season 1 instead of cold hard cash. Apparently the waiter ran after Piven and hurled the DVD after him as he left. (Whether this report is true or not: People, waiters need their tips to make a living wage. You don't tip, they can't pay the rent. Simple as that. As this is not a barter economy, landlords do not accept DVDs as currency.)

So he's not always the most popular guy in the room. But even those with cause to resent Piven shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the validity of his condition — maybe they should take a page from Ari Gold and hug it out already. Back when the news of Piven's illness first broke, Peter Etnoyer over at Deep Sea News — who has warned repeatedly of the dangers of ingesting too much mercury via seafood — was one of the first to opine, "I am willing to bet tens of dollars this guy eats sushi twice a week or more." Try twice a day, Peter (you cheapskate) — for a good 20 years or so. The man loves his sushi.  He was also taking herbal supplements, which also tend to be laden with mercury (and lead, and even arsenic).

How much mercury has Piven been ingesting with his sushi over the last two decades? Well, it depends a lot on his weight and what kind of fish he orders every meal. This handy little mercury level calculuator can help. Ahi tuna (bigeye variety) is one of the most popular items on the menu, coming in at 0.639 parts per million mercury levels. A 125-pound woman would only have to consume a mere 4 ounces a week to go way over the EPA recommended mercury levels — that's only four pieces of sushi, or maybe one spicy tuna roll. A week. One assumes Piven has a bit more body mass, but it's easy to see why he'd have dangerously high levels of mercury in his system. In fact, his doctor has said that Piven's blood had six times the upper limit typically measured. No wonder Piven wasn't feeling well.

To which I can only say, Dude — I like sushi a lot, too, and while I'm not a vegetarian, I rarely eat red meat, but sushi twice a day? Branch out a little! Try a little tofu or edamame, or your standard rice and beans, if you're looking for alternate sources of protein in your diet. Even a supposedly "healthy" food can be toxic if too much gets into your system. For some reason, far too many of us operate under the assumption that if a little of  a given type of food is "good" for us, then a lot of it must be really good for us. Such is not the case. A truly healthy diet is a balanced diet, as any respectable nutritionist could tell you. Keep the sushi consumption down to once a week or so, and those mercury levels will be dropping in no time.

9 thoughts on “mercury rising”

  1. Hmm, watch it, Jennifer, or I will be awarding you the Flaked Tuna award
    for “alternative medicine” (It is alernative because it isn’t scientific and is unproven..) I suspect the EPA levels of mercury are ridiculously conservative.
    Also, there is a whole industry of naturopathic and homeopathic “doctors” who thrive on the mercury hysteria—dentists who remove all mercury amalgam fillings(virtually the only time you get a serum boost of Hg is when they are removed), chelation scam artists, etc. Sure mercury poisoning can cause all sorts of neurological problems—Newton was an example, from all his alchemical experiments, but also he was notoriously prickly before (for a good read–“Quicksilver” by Stephenson.)
    One woman recently went to a walkin clinic for flu symptoms, and was told by a woman MD that she probably had mercury poisoning from eating a tuna sandwich at lunch…
    I would look into this some more, Jennifer, from valid sources, not from the crowd that made “Extrordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles McKay such a great read in the 1840s (and today–still in print)
    I eat lots of sushi too (oops, I’m proving your point 🙂 )

  2. My overall point was balance and moderation in all things. I don’t buy into the “OMG! Sushi will kill you!” hysteria and I think that comes through perfectly clear. But someone who eats sushi twice a day for 20 years? That’s excessive consumption, and it’s perfectly reasonable to suspect this might have something to do with unnaturally high levels of mercury in his blood. I stand by my post.
    And the McKay book is one of my favorites…

  3. One of my former classmates is an astronomer at UBC who is building a large
    liquid mirror telescope at Maple Ridge( Sean may know him –Paul Hickson–Hickson galaxies) The mirror is all mercury in a circular frame that rotates to form a parabola—cheaper to build big than conventional, but it looks straight up. Of course, there is a mercury sniffer to try to protect the operators, but I suspect the mercury levels are interesting. Fortunately, the mercury oxidizes at the surface and tends to seal off fairly quickly.
    My point is that alternative medicine is gigantic business built on gullibility
    and a woeful knowledge of science by the general population. The Sceptical Enquirer has some good articles on the whole circus.
    “I stand by my post”–you sound like a horse 😉

  4. On the other hand, as I understand it, part of the point of why fish have so much mercury, is that once absorbed, it stays in the body, so cutting back on the Sushi now is a little pointless.

  5. Not a pet peeve, Jennifer. It’s about mercury. Also, I thought you’d be interested about Paul. And sushi–what do you think the Japanese eat alot more than we do? I wonder if there are studies about mercury poisoning in the Japanese populace. I bet there are plenty who have eaten sushi twice a day for more than 20 years. But I will stop being argumentative. I already got on Lee’s blacklist in the “By Invitation Only” thread…;)

  6. I like sushi, but cmon. How BORING is life if over half your diet is the same thing?!!?! I try to not repeat a foodstuff more than once a month if I can help it!

  7. Like any strong poison, mercury can be used in small amounts as a drug — witness the historical mercury cure for syphilis. Which, like chemotherapy, had horrible side effects, but the value of stopping a deadly disease was still more desirable.

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