"When I began investigating my patients' elevated blood mercury," writes Jane Hightower, "I sought to gain a clear understanding of how mercury affects one's health. When information was not at my fingertips, I wondered why. What began as an investigation to help me diagnose mercury-related symptoms in my patients grew into another diagnosis--that of a broken, misused, and abused regulatory system."
Hightower, a Chico State University graduate, is a board certified San Francisco-based physician specializing in internal medicine. Her quest began with a patient in 2000 who exhibited fainting spells, "intermittent stomach upset, headache, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and hair loss." Other patients had similar complaints, and one other similarity: They all seemed to be fish lovers. Hightower, "who had a penchant for sorting out unusual or difficult cases," found herself embroiled in controversy beyond what she might have imagined.
The story is told in "Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison" ($24.95 in hardcover from Island Press) by Jane M. Hightower, MD. The author, recently in Chico for a book signing at Barnes and Noble and a talk at the university, became suspicious when she found that the various agencies charged with protecting public health disagreed among themselves about the dangers of mercury.
"Why did the EPA say that less than 5 mcg/l (micrograms per liter) of mercury in blood was our protective level, while the authorities in the California Public Health Department told me that you could have a level of up to 200 mcg/l will no ill effects? As for the FDA," there apparently was no "standard for human blood levels on its Web site. That was particularly disturbing because . . . the FDA had jurisdiction over all of commercial fishing." Some of the numbers were based on mercury poisoning incidents in Iraq decades ago, some on judicial fiat, and all on very little science.
Elevated levels of methylmercury (the organic form of the element) were finding their way into the human population. "Bodybuilders and dieters who consumed large quantities of canned albacore tuna and other large fish were also on top of the mercury gauge among patients in my practice."
The book is measured, data-driven, careful in its recommendations, and scarier than any Halloween goblin.