What the Yuck: Mercury poisoning from sushi?
April 8th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

What the Yuck: Mercury poisoning from sushi?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: Can you really get mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi?

Believe it or not, you can. Mercury - a toxic heavy metal that can cause neurological problems - exists in high levels in such sushi staples as tuna (bluefin is one of the worst), mackerel, yellowtail, swordfish, and sea bass. (Other fish can contain a lot of mercury if they swim in polluted waters.)

So if you're eating sushi, particularly these bad-news varieties of it, more than six times a week, you could be getting too much mercury, as actor Jeremy Piven claimed he was.

I had a patient who came to me after surviving a heart attack. His doctor had told him to eat a high-fish diet, so he dutifully grilled tuna every day for a year. Then, he started noticing weird neurological symptoms. We tested his mercury level and it was through the roof.

So how can you detox your sushi platter? First, don't eat fish every day. If you're going to have seafood that often, at least cut back on the most mercury-filled varieties. Skip these types of fish entirely while you're pregnant and nursing, because mercury exposure can very seriously harm the development of a fetus or young child.

And don't serve it to your little ones, who can be affected by much lower levels of the metal than adults would. (In fact, very young kids shouldn't eat raw fish period because of the risk of food poisoning, which can be devastating.)

And if you start to experience symptoms such as tremors, vision problems, and irritability, or if you just want to know you're in the clear, ask your doctor for a blood-mercury check. If it's high, he may advise you to cut back.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Can O Tuna

    What a trip, Man has polluted the oceans so badly the food from it is toxic.

    April 8, 2011 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. FlyGuyInSJ

    Not just the oceans. You don't want to eat much striped bass out of the California Delta, and if I were not otherwise disposed to practice catch and release bass fishing, the mercury levels in bass around San Jose would make me do it anyway. Much of that is from naturally occurring levels of mercury in the ground around here, but atmospheric deposition makes it even worse in top of the food chain freshwater fish like bass and stripers. Even not-so-top fish such as bluegill and crappie have high mercury levels in many waters in this area.

    April 8, 2011 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mercury In Medicine?

    The mercury in your flu shot was 50,000 parts per billion, injected. The EPA limit for drinking water is 4 ppb, ingested. Public health policymakers are wildly inconsistent. There is no "safe" mercury. A WHO committee is recommending the US phase-down and phase out mercury in tooth fillings. Studies show ethylmercury from vaccines damages neurons at 20-40 ppb. Read the studies.

    April 8, 2011 at 20:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The_Mick

      There's so little mercury in flu shots that it's the same as 1 1/2 6-oz cans of tuna. Additionally, the form of mercury in the flu shot is elimated from the body much more easily that that in fish.

      April 9, 2011 at 12:58 | Report abuse |
    • DocSoup

      Actually, it is the general public who is often greatly misinformed. The mercury in fish is actually toxic, is concentrated enough to be harmful to small adults and children, and is in a form that cannot be easily eliminated from the body. Thimerosal in vaccines is not toxic in the concentrations available from vaccines, is harmless for even infants, and does not build up in the body. Please realize that different chemical compounds are ... different. The body processes different compounds differently, and in this case, that difference is dramatic. It would be great if people with no understanding of a subject just didn't comment. Unfortunately ignorant people continue to spread this discredited lie.

      April 10, 2011 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      Oh, darn. I will have to stop eating vaccinations every week.

      April 10, 2011 at 14:03 | Report abuse |
    • AGeek

      Completely different types of "mercury." And no, mercury is _not_ mercury. The type matters completely. Don't be a total tool.

      April 11, 2011 at 07:05 | Report abuse |
  4. Adeline

    Stop eating sushi, earthlings, to save the ocean!!!

    April 8, 2011 at 22:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Former Sushi and Tuna Eater

    I used to eat sushi (less than once a week, but it was tuna) and ate tuna fish sandwiches, too.
    I was tested for heavy metals in the blood (even though i had no symptoms) as part of an overall check up.
    It turned out my Mercury levels were high. I stopped eating tuna, but also had all the silver-mercury fillings replaced in my mouth (teeth) with non-toxic ceramic porcelain. Then underwent ten (one a week) blood chelation sessions(intravenous) to remove the mercury from my blood. The article says you should "cut back on the level of tuna you consume".
    Unfortunately, there is no safe level. And even if you stop eating tuna, you must remove all mercury from your blood or suffer the consequences. Finally, if you have metal fillings, you are getting a dose of mercury every time you chew and should have them all removed.

    April 8, 2011 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sarah

      this is to Former Sushi and Tuna Eater.
      A fact that your dentist did not till you as he/she took your money from the composite fillings.....When you place or remove silver fillings you are being exposed to the low dose of mercury. When you have the fillings in your mouth they do not release any mercury. So you were actually exposed to the mercury when your dentist removed it. And a question for you...how do you know the so called non-toxic fillings you had placed have nothing toxic in them...i mean 40yrs ago no one thought that there were anything wrong with silver fillings...so how can you be so sure?

      April 9, 2011 at 11:25 | Report abuse |
  6. Joe Mahma


    There are NO "safe" levels for mercury. You CAN detox yourself of mercury with whey protein and MSM.

    Mercury causes nerve cell death. Our brains are made up of nerves. Get it?

    I had ALL 10 of my "silver" fillings drilled out and replaced because dental amalgam is made up of 50% mercury. Don't listen to dentists who tell you dental amalgam is OK. If the amalgam is so OK, ask them these questions:

    Why does the EPA require that dental offices filter their waste water of excess amalgam that gets washed down the drain?

    Why are gloves worn while handling the dental amalgam material?

    Why is dental amalgam banned in some Western countries and parts of Europe?


    April 9, 2011 at 11:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The_Mick

      As a master chemist, I'm not having my mercury amalgam drilled out and, in fact, last dental visit I had two old fillings repaired – with mercury amalgam.

      It's leach rate is too low to be a problem. If you a can of tuna per year, your getting more mercury than from your teeth. I've seen the "demonstrations" showing mercury leaching from the amalgam. Of course, you'd have to keep your mouth heated like an oven for that to actually happen to you! The fact the demonstrations have to use snake-oil salesmen-like tricks to either make it leach or make it look like a lot is leaching is proof to me there's not a real problem.

      April 9, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse |
    • DocSoup

      Stop worrying about insignificant exposures from amalgam and thimerosal. Industrial mercury pollution and its concentration in the food supply, primarily in large fish is real. This other stuff is pure ignorance. Whey and MSM?!!!? I hear a Shamwow works well too.

      April 10, 2011 at 11:28 | Report abuse |
  7. Fisherman

    Best fish with low mercury, high omega-3 fatty acid, BUT people complains that it is too fishy: SARDINES!!! The best fish possible,

    When I eat fish, I want fish taste. When I eat chicken I want chicken taste. When I eat steak I want beef flavor. What do you want? Fish that taste like chicken?

    April 9, 2011 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Clark Nova

      Chicken has a taste? I'd almost forgotten.

      April 9, 2011 at 22:36 | Report abuse |
  8. Deja

    When I have sushi I usually always go for salmon. Besides my personal preference, salmon has lower levels of mercury.

    April 9, 2011 at 21:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Teresa

    Clueless, clueless, and more clueless. Why defend the purposeful introduction of ANY highly toxic substance into the human body, animals, or the environment in which we live? I think mercury and the thousands of chemicals we are made ill by have addled the brains of too many people. It's pure insanity and that's what we've come to.

    April 10, 2011 at 13:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AGeek

      That would certainly explain all the looneys who want to close nuclear plants but have no problem keeping coal plants open.

      April 11, 2011 at 07:08 | Report abuse |
  10. CalgarySandy

    How is this news? We have known for years that seafood is full of mercury. We know you should limit intake of canned Tuna and you would have to be pretty dim not to be able to figure out that Sushi could also be a source of mercury. The mercury is not just bad for us it is bad for the fish and all living beings. We shy away from making businesses control this for fear of, what? they might not make quite as much money for their share holders? Boo hoo. It does not enrich our lives to allow the sinfully wealthy to do what ever they want.

    April 10, 2011 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Smokey the Bear

    The biggest contributor to putting mercury in the water, oceans and fresh water, is coal burning electric plants. The second biggest contributor is coal strip mining.

    April 10, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. a texan

    I was warned about this a couple if years ago by a sushi chef. He suggested that smaller fish often are better – less mercury. We like more coastal fish like snapper, red fish, flounder.

    Sardines are good as described in prevous comments. We like them grilled.

    So enjoy more fish – just the right fish.

    April 10, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. svann

    Irritability? I have that!

    April 10, 2011 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. need_2_comment

    Would would someone eat raw food anyway? With how polluted this world is today, that's just not good common sense.

    April 10, 2011 at 22:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • EmptySkull

      No salad for you!

      April 11, 2011 at 00:17 | Report abuse |
  15. jouelle

    And now, with radio active water being pumped into the ocean, soon the sushi will begin to glow as well.

    April 10, 2011 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Beth

    I won't eat sea food anymore, its too risky.

    April 11, 2011 at 03:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jennifer

    And those fish that pregnant women should stay away from are????? Come Doctor let me know???

    April 11, 2011 at 04:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AGeek

      Larger predator fish – bluefin tuna are a prime example. As are shark and swordfish. Tilapia & catfish are both small and farm-raised & usually very, very low (negligible) in mercury.

      April 11, 2011 at 07:13 | Report abuse |
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