THE BLOG
01/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Taking Mercury off the Table

The amazing recovery of the American bald eagle may soon be in peril in some places, according to a study released this month by the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine. According to the study, bald eagle chicks in the Catskills Park region of New York -- considered a mercury hot-spot -- are showing elevated blood mercury levels close to those associated with reproductive problems.

But what does that have to do with your dinner tonight? Well, give me a second...


In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted us to the very real dangers of poisons in our environment and their link to reproductive problems in birds -- often the first living creatures to manifest toxicity. Our problem is no longer the dreaded DDT. Today, birds are getting sick because of mercury. Here is how it works:

The mercury that is causing problems for eagles in New York comes mainly from coal-fired power plants that currently provide about half of our country's electricity. Emissions from these plants release airborne mercury, which eventually settles in bodies of water and, with the help of bacteria, is transformed into the very toxic methyl mercury. At this point, it enters the food chain when it's consumed by worms and other small organisms and then eaten by small fish. Larger fish eat the small fish and you know the rest. And mercury is not just affecting creatures that eat fish. The BioDiversity Research Institute is studying the links between mercury soil contamination and declining songbird numbers in the same region. Clearly, birds are not the only creatures being impacted. We are too.

President-elect Obama plans to make some fantastic changes as he moves us away from 'dirty' energy, but the EPA estimates that only about half of the mercury currently polluting the U. S. comes from American sources. The rest blows over mostly from Asia.

In 2004, the Sierra Club reported that 47 states put mercury advisories into effect for at least some of their waters. Because of this, and, some would argue, despite it, the FDA and EPA have maintained their recommendation that women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, as well as small children and mothers who are breastfeeding, simply avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. The FDA and EPA say it is "safe" for pregnant women and children to eat 12 ounces of other types of fish, like canned tuna, each week.

Perhaps, like me, your trust in the EPA has, well, floundered over the past years. Is it really safe to eat that much fish each week? We know that no level of mercury is safe for children under six and that methyl mercury is a developmental toxin that causes brain damage and many other health problems. But fear not. You can still go out for sushi.

Begin to protect your family by consulting the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site. They have put together a credit-card sized guide that lists best and worst seafood choices by region. You can also help raise awareness by giving these guides to family and friends and by asking for healthier, more sustainable seafood choices at your favorite markets and restaurants. Also, don't automatically trust that your local health food store is vetting your omegas for you. Check the Environmental Defense Fund's Website for their ranking on the best and worst fish-oil supplements.

Next, be an educated recycler! Send your old electronics, compact fluorescent light bulbs and mercury-containing thermometers to a recycling center or find out when your city has a special garbage collection day so that these items can be properly sent to their grave.

Avoid "silver" fillings. In 2008, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported findings from two clinical trials that showed that dental amalgam tooth fillings (containing 50 percent elemental mercury) did not adversely affect the study participants' brain development or memory in the five to seven years that the children were observed.

However, we know that amalgam fillings do break down over time -- sometimes, according to one British study, in as little as 52 to 68 months. Amalgams also release mercury vapor, which can adversely affect the central nervous system. Once removed, amalgam fillings are classified as hazardous materials and require special handling and disposal methods. Do you really want these in your mouth? Instead, ask for Bisphenol- free composite fillings.

Last, thimerosal, the organomercury compound used as a preservative in vaccines, tattoo inks, and some medicines, is still around. Concerns about the toxicity of thimerosal have forced drug companies to take steps to remove it by switching from multi-dose vaccine vials to single-dose vials that do not require a preservative. But the majority of influenza vaccines distributed in the U. S. currently contain thimerosal as a preservative. Be sure to ask before you pull up your sleeve.