Mercury Poisoning from Sushi?

Making headlines near you now! Celebrity actor gets mercury poisoning from eating too much raw fish!

Except that seems rather silly, because (as an example), the actor in question, Jeremy Piven, “would have to eat about 108 pieces of tuna sushi every week for his entire lifetime to reach dangerous metal levels.” That’s according to a restaurant blog which calculated the figure from 

Mercury is poisonous in soluble forms like methlmercury. Raw fish has it, (tuna is one of the worst), but if Piven did eat enough to get sick, he’d have the first recorded case of mercury poisoning from sushi in the USA. Seems reasonable to assume he has other reasons for quitting his role, or perhaps a quack doctor.

There does seem to be a shortage of reliable, balanced information about mercury in fish. This website tells us 

In 1969, the FDA first set an action level for total mercury in fish; 0.5ppm (part-per-million) was considered the maximum safe limit. (Action levels represent the limit at or above which FDA will take legal action to remove a product from the market.) In 1979, the action level was raised to 1ppm. In 1984, there was another major change. The FDA stopped measuring on a basis of total mercury and instead started checking levels in terms of methylmercury only. In 1998, the FDA stopped widely testing for mercury in fish.

But it doesn’t tell us why the FDA stopped testing for mercury in fish. It then tells us that 

In December 2003, the FDA began circulating a draft advisory warning women who are pregnant, nursing, or who might become pregnant about the dangers of mercury in seafood. Critics like the Environmental Working Group objected to the advisory’s vague guidance on tuna, and subsequently filed a legal challenge, charging that the advisory did not meet standards for accurate government science established by the Data Quality Act.

So, if mercury in fish is a problem, why does the FDA no longer test widely for it? Calling all science-types! Can we produce a definitive answer between us? I’m pretty sure that whatever the answer is, it’ll be no help to Jeremy Piven who is sticking to his story.

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  1. I first caught this story from Jennifer Ouellette. According to her (she doesn’t source the comment but she’s usually good for this sort of thing), Mr. Piven regularly eats sushi at least twice a /day/. I can’t imagine that level of consistency in my diet, but I have known people who are that boring and he could certainly afford it, so I think that would be sufficient to cause the symptoms in question. That’s about the level of consumption where you see mercury poisoning kick in in the Japanese, as I recall.

  2. Science Friday covered this last week. There were two guests with opposing views. One of whom, Jane Hightower, has been seared into my brain. She is an MD and has written about mercury in food. As the debate went on, however, I started getting strong woo from her. For example she kept using the phrase “mercury sensitivity” without ever defining it or discussing the facts behind this supposed condition. Spoiler: it’s pure woo.

    She did know her science, mostly, and understood that chelation therapy’s benefits are sometimes outweighed by it’s risks. Although she specifically referred to the “chelation therapy of alternative medicine” without understanding that alternative medicine does not really do chelation at all.

    I did some checking and it turns out that she wrote and published a book about mercury toxicity skipping the silly and unnecessary steps of attempting to get her results published in a peer-reviewed journal. The symptoms she ascribes to mercury toxicity are vague enough to cover everything from a tension headache to a bad day.

    I’m hoping, and I’ll add this to my other hopes for the new administration, that we can peel the FDA, FCC, SEC, and FAA away from the clutches of the industries they are supposed to be supervising. I think this is just one more case of politics meddling in what should be a an issue for science.

  3. “…why does the FDA no longer test widely for it?” Because the Bush White House didn’t want to hurt tuna companies?

    It would be in character, as his Administration was caught “editing” science-based reports that came to conclusions that they didn’t like on numerous occasions…

  4. If he really does eat sushi twice a day, 108 pieces a week only comes out to 8 pieces a sitting. If he’s eating more than that, it’s possible he’s accumulated enough mercury to cause trouble. I guess it depends on how much he’s really eating and how long he’s been at it. There aren’t that many other ways to get mercury poisoning, short of huffing fluorescent lights.

  5. Looks like Mr. Piven was replaced by William H. Macy in the play. I’m sure the play is much better now. Piven is OK, but he’s no William H. Macy. I liked David Mamet’s quote that “Jeremy is leaving showbusiness to pursue a career as a thermometer.”.

  6. @Steve, “There aren’t that many other ways to get mercury poisoning, short of huffing fluorescent lights“:

    I don’t know. My habit of draining thermometers like Pixy Sticks does the job pretty well…

  7. Just checked my Celebrity to English dictionary and:

    mercury = drug

    poisoning = addiction

    from eating too much raw fish = from doing blow off a stripper’s ass

  8. I heard a podcast about this recently as well (I think it was SGU). I think they made the point that the FDA limits are so low that it doesn’t take much to reach those limits and that even those upper limits are not going to cause problems. Why don’t countries who’s diets are rich in fish seem to have widespread mercury poisoning. People in Finland eat lots of fish and they managed to hang on to their intellect long enough to make some really good cell phones.

  9. Cry me a river. All he needs is to go get a detox kit from some nature store and he will be all set. It will also rid his body of all the other toxins in his system, help him lost 25 pounds, make his skin look young and probably give him the SAG. Plus it will BOOST his immune system.

  10. It seems to me there would be no reason for raw fish to have more MeHg than cooked fish. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    It seems to me this story is taking advantage of the scariness of sushi to the average pallette by tacking on an actual scariness. Had they said he got it from eating too much fish, it would come off a mundane, easily ignored story.

  11. When I was pregnant I lived near Lake Michigan. I was told pregnant women should not eat fish (I’m a big fish eater) from Lake Michigan. However, if I remember correctly it was dioxins from the paper mill they were worried about. It made me think twice about eating Lake Michigan seafood at all.

  12. Well. Variety of things. First, his doctor says that he has mercury poisoning. According to Wikipedia (and sourced to this medical journal which you can’t read without paying for a subscription. Sketchy) Chelation therapy is often used badly. It does effectively remove mercury from the body, which will occur naturally even with a healthy diet. If the mercury level is given by testing the urine after the therapy rather than by testing the mercury in the blood before the therapy, it will yield an artificially high mercury level.

    Hypersensitivity to mercury is extremely rare. Mercury was used in fillings for over a 100 years. No study has ever found a link between body mercury levels and number of amalgam fillings, despite the minute bioreactivity of amalgam, so the very low dose presented there doesn’t seem to trigger even the hypersensitive. At all.

    The EPA does say the most common exposure vector for mercury is fish, but it’s a 600 page doc, and I’m not reading it through right now.

    So, with an easy way to fake it, and other fish eaters not getting it, the rarity of hypersensitivity, etc. Occam’s razor with the data I bothered to get says he’s trying to get out of work.

    As far as the FDA, EPA thing, I guess I lean a bit towards anarcho-capitalism. I think one of the more effective behavioral incentives is money. I think asking the EPA and FDA to beg congress for money every year to do their policing, when the people they police are actively giving money to congress is against human nature, and not particularly effective. I mean certainly it’s better than nothing, but I think we might be able to come up with something more creative and effective if we really wanted to.

    Note, I’m not saying that their aren’t people in the EPA who don’t work their asses off to make the world a better place, or that money is the only reason to do a good job. Just saying some general principals.

  13. @kittynh

    It probably was the dioxin. Non-predator fish have negligible mercury. If the concern is mercury the warning will come with which species of fish to avoid.


    The logical fallacy thread was yesterday.

  14. “Mercury is poisonous in soluble forms like methlmercury.” That’s wrong on many levels.

    Mercury, Hg, is very poisonous in all its forms.

    By “Soluble” I think you mean a combination of “Bioavailible” and “Bioacumulation”, solubility is the measure of how readily something dissolves into a given solvent, not how easily it enters the body.

    By “Methlymercury” you mean “Dimethlymercury”, a substance so toxic chemists brag about working with it on chemistry blogs and it killed the foremost expert in it

    It’s toxic at near Homeopathic concentrations.

    The current “safe” daily intake for Hg is Zero. If you can qualititively (as aposed to quantitively) detect it, that’s too high.

    I have no idea why the EPA isn’t researching it anymore. However the Norwegian Government takes Hg in fish very seriously, just before Xmas i applied for a research post at the University of Bergen (which I’m assuming I haven’t got since I’ve not heard anything from them) to develop new “low conc” analytical methods to detect Hg in landed fish and then, hopefully, start to put some new data together

    Bioacumulation is the key here. Small polar molecules easily pass through non-aq barriers in the body and build up in fat cells. Though the real danger is from inhaling any Hg vapour.

    Regarding the 108 pieces of fish. It depends on the fish. Any statistic given without +/- figures sets my skeptisence off. Lets say you were 95% confident that a piece of sushi contained X +/- x ug Hg per g, 1 in 20 sushi samples would be different to your estimate. If you were unlucky enough to get a highly contaminated piece of sushi, that one piece could be equivalent to eating 1000 pieces of “average” sushi.

    A classmate of mine’s Thesis was on heavy metal content of tuna, I will ask her for more info

  15. Correcting my own error, Methylmercury in this case is most like refering to Monomethlymercuric salts.

    I really should stick to my own branch of chemistry. Sorry all.

  16. I got my summary from Wikipedia. I would claim that as folly but you also used them as a source so neener.

    “Mercury occurs in deposits throughout the world and it is harmless in an insoluble form, such as mercuric sulfide, but it is poisonous in soluble forms such as mercuric chloride or methylmercury.”

    If that’s not correct then please do edit the Wiki entry, I’ll update my post accordingly.

  17. Actually his reported mercury poisoning is being blamed on a high intake of “Chinese herbs” as well as fish. Aren’t the former rightfully notorious for high levels of toxic heavy metals? If I had to make a guess, I’d guess that the herbs all by themselves could be enough to cause mercury poisoning symptons.

  18. @Suppressive Person: You are probably thinking of Ayurvedic medicines from India, which a recent study found often contained dangerous levels of various heavy metals. Chinese herbs would not contain mercury, nor was that the claim I believe. If I recall the story, it was said that the Chinese herbs simply promoted Mr. Piven’s sensitivity, whatever that means.

  19. There is a tremendous amount of disinformation out there on mercury because it got picked up by the quacks as “the cause” of autism and is being pushed by lawyers trying to scam the legal system into giving them a gigantic amount of money. That was what David Kirby’s book evidence of harm was about, the idea that thimerosal, a mercury containing preservative in vaccines was the cause of autism. Slight problem with that idea, the symptoms of mercury poisoning are nothing like autism. The dose of mercury from vaccines was much smaller than from other sources (~15 micrograms per dose) and now several years after thimerosal has been removed from vaccines there is no decrease in autism cases.

    The idea of “hypersensitivity” to mercury comes from the experience with mercury containing teething powders. 70 years ago, it was common practice to give children who were teething a powder that contained 55,000 micrograms of mercury per dose (yes, that is 55,000 micrograms of mercury (usually as 65,000 micrograms of HgCl) per dose). Many millions of doses were sold per year (one company sold 30,000,000 doses). Children who were “hypersensitive” to mercury after being given these teething powders developed what is called “pink disease”. Over a thousand children died from it.

    It was “hypersensitivity” to a few hundred milligrams of mercury that caused pink disease because most children exposed to those levels didn’t get pink disease. Many millions of children received many thousands of times more mercury from teething powders than children received from vaccines. Some were “hypersensitive”, got pink disease and some of them died. There has been no reported case of pink disease from mercury in vaccines (or any other known symptom of mercury poisoning).

    There are data on mercury levels in fish.

    Mercury levels in tuna are pretty high because tuna are predators and mercury bioaccumulates. What has even higher levels are the things that eat tuna (dolphins), and what has higher levels still are the things that eat dolphins (killer whales). Levels of mercury in some of those things are high enough to give you mercury poisoning from a single dose.

    The problem with fresh water fish is usually PCBs. That is the problem in the Hudson River.

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