01/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mamet and Mercury

"My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer," was playwright David Mamet's insensitive comment about Jeremy Piven's early departure from Mamet's Broadway revival of his play, Speed-the-Plow. Mamet's quote appeared in the New York Times (December 19, 2008); he was said to have made that remark to Daily Variety.

While there may be a behind-the-scenes back story that prompted Mamet to make this remark, his comment is wildly inappropriate in that it makes light of a very serious environmental problem. The Times article noted that Piven was said to consume fish a couple of times a day, but one does not need to eat fish that often to be the victim of mercury poisoning.

Some may recall that mercury used to be considered a potent and helpful medicine. Both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln are known to have taken mercury for their health. Lewis and Clark carried it as part of their first-aid kit, and mercury was long used as a treatment for syphilis, and those who grew up in the 1950s and '60s may remember dabbing cuts and scrapes with mercurochrome. it has been used as a preservative in childhood vaccines. For a long time, mercury was accepted as a cure-all with many purposes.

But history has long told another story. Fountains of "quicksilver" (mercury) used to be prominently featured in Spanish palaces (Spain produces about 60 percent of the world's mercury). No one realized that when palace residents suffered symptoms such as tremors, drooling, and failing health that they were actually suffering from mercury poisoning. The true dangers of mercury did not become fully understood until the 1950s when a community in Japan had the bad luck to be downstream of a corporation that dumped mercury into the water. "Dancing cats" (felines that showed erratic behavior) were the first sign of a problem, but eventually more than 3,000 residents showed the effects of mercury poisoning. Forty-six of them died of it.

In August 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that fish in virtually all U.S. lakes and rivers are contaminated, and in early 2005, a study in the journal Ecotoxicology found high levels of mercury in songbirds, salamanders, and other New England wildlife previously thought to be unaffected. This was discouraging news because it had been thought that the mercury poisonings were limited to species that consumed the toxin directly from the water.

More than thirty years after the alarm was first raised, mercury accumulation in fish remains the chief source of exposure to the toxic metal in the United States, and the single-largest course of mercury emissions is from coal-fired plants. Until 2001 factory and power plant emissions were governed by the Clean Air Act, which required plants to have the best available technology in place by 2009. The improvements were projected to lower emissions by 90 percent. The Bush administration changed course, removing the power plants from Clean Air Act jurisdiction and proposing the first regulatory effort to cut the emissions with a plan to reduce output by 70 percent within thirteen years. In addition, the EPA also allows the power companies to buy pollution credits instead of reducing emission levels.

Earlier in 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an opinion in a case that was initiated by 15 states and other groups, challenging the EPA's decision to "delist" mercury as a hazardous air pollutant. While this--and the arrival of the Obama administration--makes it likely that a more stringent mercury standard will be adopted, EPA rulemaking takes time.

In the meantime, mercury poisoning is real. Heed the advisories from the Food and Drug Administration: pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish entirely and limit consumption of albacore tuna (canned white tuna and tuna steaks) to 6 ounces (one meal) per week. (These fish are at the top of the food chain and contain higher levels of mercury because they consume smaller fish in polluted streams.) Canned light tuna, shrimp, salmon, and catfish are said to be tolerable if you eat no more than 12 ounces per week.

Also write to your congresspeople and say we need laws that reduce our exposure to mercury.

And Jeremy Piven, feel better!