Mercury and Human Health:
A Case Study in Science and Politics
Jane Hightower, MD
In the year 2000, my dermatology colleague, Kathy Fields, MD, tuned in to a public radio program to hear people complaining of symptoms like hair loss after eating fish out of a mercury-polluted lake. To a dermatologist the thought of having an etiology for hair loss was intriguing, so when the next patient came to her for hair loss, she checked on the patient's mercury level. It just happened to be my patient, and her level was four times what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considered healthy. Neither Dr. Fields nor I knew how to interpret the number, and I quickly found out no one else I called on did either. So my quest began.
For one year I surveyed my practice population, publishing my results in Environmental Health Perspectives.(1) Results showed startling elevations in mercury levels in high-end consumers of commercial fish. When they stopped eating the fish, their mercury levels dropped. None of my patients had consumed fish from the San Francisco Bay. Websites immediately emerged from the government, nongovernment organizations, industry (to include the tuna foundation), and the media when my results were published. I discovered that the arguments about mercury have been ongoing for over 30 years, perhaps even centuries.
Mercury and Health in History