Actor 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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