Sushi, Mercury Poisoning and Jeremy Piven

December 19, 2008 at 9:58 pm (Alternative Medicine, Mercury) (, , )

Jeremy PivenActor Jeremy Piven has been diagnosed with Mercury toxicity by an alternative/complementary/holistic/integrative doctor (delete according to whatever buzzword is being used as a euphemism for AltMed this week – I think it’s integrative). Dr Carlon Colker went further and stated that he knew the cause of the Mercury toxicity – Piven is a sushi fan and has apparently eaten raw fish and vinegared rice “twice a day for years”.

There are several points to be made here, about: the diet Mr Piven consumed; the assumption that the raw fish was the culprit; the assumption that Mercury toxicity was responsible for all Piven’s symptoms; and the assumption that Chinese herbs were not the primary cause of Mercury toxicity.

Piven’s diet seems slightly odd to me and I don’t believe that the Food Standards Agency, the European Union member states, or the World Health Organisation have ever recommended eating fish twice a day. Twice a week would be more like it. The main thing that struck me was that Piven had taken no heed of the common advice to eat a varied diet. In fact, food supplements labels must by law state that supplements are not a replacement or alternative to a varied diet and healthy lifestyle. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t consider eating sushi twice a day to be partaking of a varied diet. I’ve linked at the bottom of this post to WHO and FSA pages on mercury and from a bit of googling (also linked below), it seems that both WHO and the FSA websites carry advice that refers to varied diets.

Colker assumes that the raw fish Piven consumed was responsible for the mercury that had apparently accumulated in his body. What type of fish was it – a species prone to accumulation of mercury? Was the fish sampled and tested by an independent, accredited laboratory for heavy metals? Or is Colker simply assuming that, as fish commonly contains more mercury than other foods that the fish from Piven’s regular sushi meals must be responsible? It’s certainly plausible, but he seems very certain of this assumption without seeming to have any actual evidence to back up his hunch.

Mercury toxicity: Piven had recently started a new play and had symptoms such as tiredness, which are assumed by Colker to be due to poisoning. It’s plausible, but it ain’t necessarily so. As is pointed out by mjrobbins on the Bad Science forum (link below), it would not be hugely surprising for “a middle-aged TV actor [starting] a demanding new stage show” to feel symptoms such as fatigue and exhaustion. It is reported by the WebMD site that “Colker says Piven’s original mercury level was “shockingly elevated” at nearly six times the upper tolerable limit and the highest Colker had ever seen in his practice.” On the Bad Science forum, Ray asks “being an altmed outfit, how exactly did they diagnose these mercury levels?” and Colker is indeed part of an AltMed outfit – Peak Wellness. In fact, he’s a president, owner, chief executive officer and medical director of the Greenwich branch of this outfit if the Peak Wellness site and the WebMD report are both accurate. Nice work if you can get it.

As for the Chinese herbs that Piven was taking, how can Colker assume their safety? Particularly given the tainted Ayurvedic Medicines that Hawk/Handsaw blogged about not so long ago. If poorly regulated Ayurvedic medicines can contain high levels of heavy metals it does not necessarily follow that poorly regulated Herbal medicines also contain similarly high levels but the fact that these are two poorly regulated forms of medication that could naturally contain relatively high levels of heavy metals is of concern. I’m not sure about the US, but if you want an idea of the levels of heavy metals in UK supplements, the FSA has a Heavy Metals Survey PDF. Annex 3 has industry comments on the findings and it is interesting to note that the products being defended are: Ginseng, Kelp, St John’s Wort, and some algae products. Given that the survey looked at vitamin, mineral and fatty acid supplements as well as herbal products, it does seem as if herbals are more likely to contain undesirable levels of heavy metals than are other supplements. It therefore seems plausible that despite Colker’s claims the herbal medicines could be the real culprit here. The only way to know is to send samples off to independent, accredited laboratories and get them tested. Guessing or assuming helps no-one and proves nothing. Colker states that Piven was taking unnamed Chinese herbs for “general wellness.” Apparently, “those herbs “may have contributed” but sushi was probably the main issue, according to Colker.” Conjecture and assumption, if you ask me.

How is Piven being treated? “Colker says he gave Piven dietary restrictions — including restricting seafood — and ordered him to rest. Colker also gave Piven dietary supplements to “help clear the mercury” and protect his organs.” Oh, good. He’s being given (presumably untried and untested) food supplements that may or may not contain heavy metals. We don’t know if these unnamed supplements are helpful in any way and neither do we know if they are potentially harmful. Seems to me that the ‘cure’ is potentially even less sound than is the diagnosis. As the pills have not been named, I cannot really comment on their usefulness but I’ve never heard of nutrients “clearing mercury and protecting organs” before and it sounds like nutritionista woo of the highest order.

Links: Account of the Piven Poisoning on WebMD; Peak Wellness; Food Standards Agency page on fish and shellfish – contains advice on recommended and maximum portions of fish (two and four respectively for men); EU Directive 2002/46 – check out Article 6.1(d), which mandates a “varied diet” statement on supplement labels; WHO on Mercury (1); WHO on Mercury PDF (2); WHO on Mercury PDF (3); “Varied Diet” on Food Standards Agency website – Google; WHO Google Search for Varied Diet. Sushi on Wikipedia; Sashimi on Wikipedia. And finally, the badscience.net/forum discussion.

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12 Comments

  1. dvnutrix said,

    Once more and with feeling, leaping to conclusions is not an adequate form of mental exercise – and is no substitute for neglecting to consider the matters that you highlight. Still, years ago, it was fashionable to have a diagnosis of candida maybe now, the fashion is for Hg toxicity.

  2. Dr Aust said,

    Carlon Colker is a real doctor, though he seems to be mainly a personal physician and trainer to celebrities. Think Dr Wendy Denning with added muscles.

    Dr Colker claims in one story that Piven’s mercury level was “six times the upper limit of normal”. Now, I would love to know what test he used. Mercury testing is, errm, a controversial area. If he used a “provocation test” (after treatment with a chelating agent) it would be most enlightening… though not about Piven’s mercury levels.

  3. Claire said,

    WebMD’s reporting of the Piven saga is lamentably credulous, with no attempt to question any of Colker’s assertions. “Better information. Better Health” – not this time.

  4. Claire said,

    Tangentially relevant, seems WebMD (parent company of Medscape) are discontinuing The Medscape Journal .

  5. Neuroskeptic said,

    Given that the way it usually works is that acceptable levels are deliberately set to be orders of magnitude less than the level that would actually harm you, on better safe than sorry grounds, is 6 times the acceptable level actually very high?

  6. draust said,

    The B/G for this is the fact that people in what are seen as “mercury-vulnerable” groups (small children and especially pregnant women, since organic mercury concentrates in the foetus) are currently advised not to eat ocean fish more than a couple of times a week, and to avoid certain kinds of very large predator fish (shark, swordfish). If you eat sashimi ocean tuna every day, then your mercury intake will certainly be higher than if you only eat tinned sardines once a week. For more info try here.

    Of course, we don’t know what Piven really eats. We know, at best, what his nutri-doc has told the papers that Piven has told the doctor he eats.

    And Piven is, of course, unlikely to be pregnant.

    Like I said earlier, what test (mercury in urine? in blood?), how done (with or without chelators?), and what results (numbers), is the info we need to tell if this story is real or not.

  7. The Golden Globes « These are a few of my favorite things said,

    [...] Piven!! ARI GOLD is awesome. And check it out…he’s looking healthy after his awful food poisoning!!! Well- maybe food poisoning isn’t the culprit, but rather “sushi addition“. [...]

  8. PPC Coach said,

    Very good blog. I’m glad I found it. All the best, Roberto

  9. Kristie Quillen said,

    “I’ve never heard of nutrients “clearing mercury and protecting organs” before”

    Try googling “Dimercaptosuccinic Acid” aka “DMSA” or “Alpha Lipoic Acid.”

    Spread knowledge, not ignorance.

  10. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comment Kristie. I’m not sure whether DMSA would normally be described as a “nutrient” but it certainly is a heavy metal chelator (albeit with limited usefulness).

    2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) and 2,3-dimercaptopropane-1-sulfonic acid (DMPS) should be reserved for cases of less severe inorganic Hg or methyl-Hg acute intoxication [Source: Pubmed.]

    DMSA can cross the blood-brain barrier of mice, but not that of humans, limiting its use to extracting heavy metals from parts of the body other than the central nervous system [Source: Wikipedia.]

    I’d be interested to know whether DMSA and Alpha Lipoic Acid were the “supplements” used by Dr Colker. I’d also be interested to learn whether these substances are classified as dietary supplements (I believe ALA is in some countries). I’d be even more interested to know how Colker diagnosed Piven’s mercury poisoning (see also Dr Aust’s comments, numbered 2 and 6 above).

  11. Sushi and Mercury Poisoning 1 | Sushi Break said,

    [...] fish kind), or even sushi at all, results in mercury poisoning. Further research even revealed an actor whose sushi habit got him in trouble with the toxic affliction causing him to being released from a [...]

  12. Vincent said,

    I can’t believe the tone of this article, and of these comments. Even the ADA went against their own corrupt sub-committee and finally abolished mercury in dental fillings. Deep-sea tuna is one of the most popular fish to eat raw, and is also very high in mercury levels. Piven probably had a mouth full of mercury leeching into his system for years as well from dental work, compounding his problem.

    Oral chelation of mercury with DMSA, also known as captomer, is done in conjunction with cilantro extract, which leeches the mercury out of the body and pulls it together into larger particles for the captomer to gather up and eliminate from the body. It’s a pain and not a very pleasant experience, but much less invasive than the alternative which is intravenous chelation.

    There is so much hate and ignorance here by posers second-guessing a medical doctor that actually helps people that slip through the cracks of conventional medicine. Has anybody noticed that life expectancy is declining in the richest nation on earth, both overall and relative to other developed nations where medicine is less of a profit center?

    When Piven says that he almost died, I believe him because I have been through it myself.

    This whole page reminds me of the prejudice that chiropractors had to go through a generation ago before they gained acceptance by the mainstream. Everybody hated them until their back went out. Now at least the surgery is much better if you actually need it, and many who would have gotten it back then are just getting an adjustment and walking away happy.

    Keep eating your sushi, and drinking your kool-aid made with rat-poisoned (fluoridated) water and you will be just fine, yeah that’s the ticket lol. Yes, more and more informed municipalities are actually voting to stop water fluoridation in their communities all the time, look it up. Anyways cheers to Piven for having the courage to go public with this despite all the haters out there.

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