What Ails the Mercurial Jeremy Piven?

The Center For American Progress’s Wonk Room wonders Is Coal-Poisoned Sushi Killing Jeremy Piven? Piven left a Broadway play because of a doctor’s finding that he has elevated mercury levels. “Piven?s doctor, Carlon Colker,” the Wonk Room relays, “explained that his mercury poisoning was caused by a high-sushi diet“:

Dr. Colker said that an initial battery of tests on Mr. Piven had shown normal results. But after Mr. Piven said he was a frequent sushi eater who consumed fish about twice a day, and that he used herbal remedies, Dr. Colker tested him for heavy metals. Dr. Colker said that these tests revealed ?a very, very elevated level of mercury? in Mr. Piven?s blood, adding that it was five to six times the upper limit that is typically measured.

They go on to note that coal-fired power plants release lots of mercury from the smokestacks, which finds its way into fish. Furthermore:

Organic mercury poisoning from fish consumption causes nervous system damage with symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. Mercury in fish has reached alarming levels. In the United States, about ?one in six women of childbearing age now have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood? and ?between 300,000 and 600,000 children are at serious risk of severe neurological and developmental impairment from mercury exposure each year.?

But another bit of the doctor’s statement struck me. Pivens cannot live by sushi alone, so he was also taking herbal supplements. It turns out that an analysis published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that herbal supplements are often laden with mercury, lead, and arsenic.

Not knowing what supplements Piven took, nor the quantities involved, I’m hesitant to attribute his illness to the supplements, and I’m absolutely sure that the sushi played a role as well. But people would do well to be very careful about the herbal supplements they use. Supplements are basically unregulated, so there’s no good way to know what toxic heavy metals your health supplement might be doping you up with.

Take-home message: Balance your diet and leave out the herbal supplements.


  1. #1 Brad Johnson
    December 23, 2008

    Thanks for pointing out the danger of herbal supplements. This story reminded me of an Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers novel; we forget how far we’ve come in the understanding and treatment of toxic poisoning. That said, there’s completely insufficient testing of exposure to toxics like mercury, and we have very limited knowledge of what long-term low-level environmental exposure does to infants, children, and adults.

  2. #2 Ian
    December 23, 2008

    Yeah “herbal supplements” jumped out at me as well. Of course, on the issue of sushi, given the problem “Imposter Fish, I’d be deeply suspicious of sushi as well.

  3. #3 Ed Darrell
    December 24, 2008

    Some of us don’t get to eat sushi often enough to cause a problem. Personally, I swear by Takashi in Salt Lake City — not just because it’s run by our niece and nephew, but also because Takashi is very careful about their fish.

    What it means is we need to take steps to reduce mercury that can find its way to fish (I suspect it biomagnifies, as DDT does), and we need to take steps to preserve good quantities of diverse fish stocks from around the world . . .

    In other words, it’s a long slog solution to keep up our sushi habits.

    Can January 21 come soon enough?

  4. #4 gillt
    December 29, 2008

    Lack of rigorous screening for methylmercury levels in seafood is the largest problem. That and the three big tuna companies successfully lobbied to keep from the public the 1998 FDA findings of dangerous mercury levels in tuna until 2004. Additionally, the FDA sporadically tests mercury levels in commonly eaten fish species, but if you look at the actual primary data which is placed on their website, some fish species have only been tested a handful of times, some only once.

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