My Toddler’s Mercury Poisoning from Tuna

BY ON October 7, 2011

 Ayelet WaldmanThis is a guest post by Ayelet Waldman:

When my daughter Sophie was four years old, she was, in many ways, a Jewish mother’s dream. Her favorite lunch wasn’t pizza or hamburgers or chicken McNuggets. My little girl loved nothing better than a tuna sandwich with plenty of celery and pickles. And you should have seen her in a sushi restaurant, happily gobbling up maki rolls. As is often the case with new parents, I attributed her sophisticated palate to my own parenting skills (just as I saw every tantrum, every tear, every obnoxious moment as a clear reflection of my incompetence).

Not everything, however, was going so smoothly. Our daughter, a bright, inquisitive child, had lately begun to exhibit some peculiar plateaus in her development. By the age of three, Sophie could tie her shoes; at four she had somehow forgotten that skill. For a while she had been making good progress, even accelerated progress, in learning how to read. In the past year, however, she seemed to slow down, even to regress.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There was nothing about my daughter’s behavior that could be described as developmentally delayed. She seemed more or less normal for her age, and, only we, her parents, were worried—and even we were suspicious of that worry. After all, what kind of a nut starts stressing out not that her child is below average, but that she isn’t above average enough? We hesitated to express our fears aloud, even to one another.

Child poisoned by tuna fishI wish I could say that it was our skillful parenting, our cleverness, our intimate knowledge of the mysteries of child development that caused us to figure out that there was something seriously wrong with Sophie. It was, however, a complete coincidence, an accident, that saved her from suffering permanent brain damage.

Sophie, like many children whose parents suffer from a devotion to the architecture of generations past, was at risk for lead exposure from paint scraped from the walls of our Craftsman bungalow. At the instruction of our pediatrician, we were all regularly tested for lead. When Sophie was four, her heavy metal test revealed something far more frightening, and our unexpressed fears were made grimly real. Our perfect baby, our darling first-born, was suffering from high levels of mercury, hovering just above those the FDA considers acceptable. The day we found out the test results, I panicked. I desperately inventoried the contents of our house, grabbing up thermometers to make sure they had not been lurking, broken and unobserved, in the backs of drawers. I remember standing in Sophie’s room that night, watching her sleep, and wishing I reach deep into her skull and tear out with my naked fingers the horrible molecules that were working their wretched havoc on my little girl’s brain.

And then I did what every self-respecting American mother with a DSL line does. I surfed the web, and there I found the person who would answer all my questions. Dr. Jane Hightower, a physician in San Francisco, has made the dangers of mercury exposure a personal and professional crusade. Dr. Hightower told me that what was most likely the source of Sophie’s mercury exposure – tuna fish. By encouraging Sophie to eat a food that I knew to be good for her brain, her heart, her immune system, I had poisoned her.

As instructed by Dr. Hightower, we completely eliminated fish from Sophie’s diet. This resulted in a more than a few hysterical tantrums in the grocery store, with Sophie holding on to a can of Chicken of the Sea with a kind of grim desperation, while I madly tried to entice her with packages of cookies, chocolate bars, and even sugared cereals. But I didn’t give in, and within a couple of months, Sophie’s mercury levels were down.

We all know how good fish is for our children, how the Omega III fatty acids in fish oils are crucial for the development of their brains. And yet, the mercury in fish is toxic to their cognitive development. How are we as parents to resolve this dilemma? How do we keep them both healthy, and safe?

The most important thing we as mothers can do to protect our children is to demand action from our government. We have EPA regulations. It’s time to enforce them. And yet, what is Congress poised to do? The very opposite. The Senate will soon vote on the TRAIN Act of 2011, an act designed to cripple the Clean Air Act regulations that could protect our children. That’s right. Your representatives are about to decide whether they want to keep poisoning your children. What are you going to do about it?

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Ayelet Waldman is mother of Sophie, Zeke, Rosie and Abe. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. She has also made radio appearances on All Things Considered and The California Report. Before taking up the pen, Ayelet clerked for a federal judge and became a public defender in Los Angeles, California. She served as an adjunct professor at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. She is a graduate of the Wesleyan University and obtained her JD from Harvard Law School.

TOPICS: Mercury Poisoning, Pollution