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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mind Your Mercury

Air Date: Week of May 13, 2005

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Saying she had a toxic glow, Salon.com writer Katharine Mieszkowski wrote a commentary for Living on Earth three months ago about her surprise at finding she had high levels of mercury in her body. Now, after cutting fish from her diet entirely, she joins host Steve Curwood to talk about her new test results.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Certifying organic seafood is a complicated matter. And so is finding out if the fish on your plate is safe to eat. Toxins can be the problem. Farm-raised salmon, according to a recent study reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives may have as much as ten times the amount of dioxins found in wild-caught salmon. And even wild caught predator fish, such as tuna, swordfish and shark can have unhealthful levels of mercury.

Joining me is Katharine Mieszkowski, a senior writer at the on line magazine Salon. Several months ago Katherine wrote a commentary for us about being tested for mercury and finding - to her surprise - levels of mercury in her body well above those considered “safe” for a woman her age. Hi there, Katharine.

MIESZKOWSKI: Hi.

CURWOOD: Now, you’re at your desk there in San Francisco. I imagine the same place that you got the news after you wrote a commentary for us a few months ago and had yourself tested for mercury. And you had what, 1.08 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair, which is well above what’s considered safe, right?

MIESZKOWSKI: That’s correct.

CURWOOD: Then you got yourself re-tested after several months of fish abstinence. What was in the letter that came to your desk after that?

MIESZKOWSKI: The new letter said that my level was 0.91 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair. So that was a 16 percent reduction in a very short amount of time, in just three and a half months.

CURWOOD: Now, when we eat something that has mercury in it, how does it come out of our bodies?

MIESZKOWSKI: Well, as much as you might not like to think about your hair as an excretion product, as one doctor called it to me, that’s what it is. I mean the heavy metal comes out of your hair, as well as out of your fingernails, your toenails. That’s why a hair test is one way to get a screen and measure how much your body is sort of emitting.

CURWOOD: To do this, to get this reduction, I gather you stopped eating fish pretty much altogether, huh?

MIESZKOWSKI: Yeah, I developed something of a fish phobia. What a doctor would tell you is to avoid the top predator fish, the fish that live longest and consume the most other fish that also have mercury in them. So those fish are like swordfish, shark, tilefish, tuna. But my reaction was to be a little bit grossed out by all seafood. So I really just didn’t eat almost any seafood for about three and a half months. I only had it twice and that was when it was served to me and it would have been rude to refuse it.

CURWOOD: Weren’t you worried that what you were eating instead was maybe equally unhealthy in other ways?

MIESZKOWSKI: That is an issue because people say that, you know..oh, this is a good story, here I reduced my mercury level so quickly. But, in fact, it’s rather a sad story because fish is one of the best sources of lean protein and omega three fatty acids. So it’s not exactly a tale of hope and courage.

CURWOOD: You know, a lot of people in the world get fish for subsistence stock. All it costs them is some time and a hook and some bait and they can eat.

MIESZKOWSKI: Exactly. So that’s why it’s kind of a red herring to just have these lists of fish that people should avoid because that really only helps out people who have the means and the education and the access to different food sources in order to make a switch. That’s why I think it’s so important to actually try to get the mercury out of the environment as opposed to, you know, just have the most elite people modifying their diets in these refined ways.

CURWOOD: Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.com. Katherine, thank you so much for joining us.

MIESZKOWSKI: Thank you.

 

Links

Katharine Mieszkowski's commentary on LOE

Katharine Mieszkowski's article in Salon about her latest mercury test results

Greenpeace order form for mercury test kit

 

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