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?


Read more about mercury:

Thank you so much, Ayelet for joining the Moms Clean Air Force Leadership Circle!

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

  • Ronnie

    Cilantro is an excellent heavy metal chelator. If your daughter likes it, use it cooked or raw. It’ll work against any heavy metal toxin she might come up against. I’m chilled to read of your daughter’s ordeal. I was also poisoned by mercury, but in my teeth, at age 52. I regained my health with the help of Dr. Luc Maes (naturopath and homeopath) in Santa Barbara. He saved my life. I’m happy to hear you found a doctor that knew enough to help her. Thanks for sharing, it may open another mother’s eyes.

  • pamela ingram

    this is staggering to read. i am sharing it with all my younger mothers. thank you for speaking out.

  • Thank you so much for sharing Sophie’s mercury poisoning story! This is truly frightening. I will be sharing this in hopes that it will help another family. I wish the best for Sophie in her future!

  • Lamar and Ronnie Tyler

    Wow!! Thanks for sharing your story. My kids don’t like tuna fish ..but my husband and I do and we have it at least once a week. This is a great example of why we have to hold our representatives accountable!!!

  • What a terrible thing to have to experience. I’d love to learn more. Do you have any helpful resources to learn more about mercury poisoning, protecting our children or creating the right balance in their diets if they do indeed like foods like tuna fish? Thank you for sharing your experience!

  • Well, what about all the vaccines that have heavy metals, mercury and aluminum and others? The poor little ones get on a bad path from the beginning!

    • Krista Gallagher

      Exactly!!!! Worried about tuna and not vaccines????!

  • Wow, that is REALLY scary! I love tuna and having a child with food allergies, asthma and eczema really makes me super careful about what I expose him to and what he consumes. Ever since he was an infant I’ve had to alter my diet (I was a nursing mom) and slowly introduce foods to him. It’s like walking on egg shells along with trial and error! His doctors wouldn’t give me a referral to an allergist for testing before he was 2. I’m so glad that you were able to pinpoint the cause and deal with it. We need to continue spreading the word about the clean air act and do something about it!

  • Paul Andrew Anderson
  • Marian

    Chunk light tuna has far less mercury than (Albacore) tuna and Skipjack which is chunk light has hardly any. Better to eat the small fish: the higher up you go on the food chain with fish, the more mercury you are ingesting. Also Salmon that is wild caught is safe to eat. For Mercury levels check out :

    • Darin

      What about the Stardish?

  • Janet

    Modified Citrus Pectin (MPC) removes not only the mercury but lead and arsenic from a body. There was an interview on MCP on Natural News. Here is the info

    Health Ranger Show #66: Interview with Dr. Issac Eliaz
    Health Ranger Mike Adams talks with Dr. Isaac Eliaz about the use of chelation therapy and modified citrus pectin to detoxify the body.
    Click here to listen now (MP3).

    Learn more: Podcasts

  • Thanks for sharing this story. My kids have been tuna crazy lately, and now I’m worried. We’re vegetarian at home, except for the tuna. I think we’ll have to rethink this food option.

    It’s astounding the amount of toxins that are in our food and water (and ‘medicines’) and that for some, the almighty dollars reigns supreme, not health. Don’t those making the decisions have children and grandchildren they’d want to protect as well? I just don’t get it!!

  • Lori

    You’rea great mom and advocate. I’m an advocate too for my children ( they are high functioning Aspi’s ) We research a lot about food/nutrients and brain function..This cause with the Mercury in tuna is so important. I have already written to our Congressman, who is supportive of protecting children and their health from mercury. We live in Vermont..All moms and dads need to write in, sign those petitions and make some noise till we are heard and change is evident. Thanks for sharing and best to you and your family!

  • Oh My God….what next? I’ve always said that these gov’t agencies have to let things like this go on as we’re highly overpopulated; in other words, they’re killing us off.
    My daughter is raising her daughter, like herself, to be a vegetarian with periodic meals of fish, especially tuna, & range chicken.
    I’ll let her know about this to see what she decides to do because she studies everything & reads labels on any or all purchases. What she doesn’t quite understand, she looks it up to either prove or disprove.

  • A FAR infrared sauna will detox everything from your system, INCLUDING heavy metals. They are safe for children, as well. Everyone should have one as a first line of self defense in a country where the entire gov’t has been bought and paid for by Corporate America. The alphabet agencies could not care less if we are healthy or not, so it’s up to us to find as many ways to get healthy and remain that way in spite of them.

  • The Natural raw vinegar and the raw Honey will help rid the body of poisons and toxins/
    balance the pH, (your acid, alkaline condition “All your cells work their optimum when the pH is balanced”)/ Enhance circulation/ Rid the body of lactic acid/ Helps to normalize thyroid, metabolism/Digestion/Hydrate.

    Article on benefits:

    I have available an Enhanced Version of The Vinegar & Honey System with herbs: cinnamon, garlic, rosemary, thyme, shizandra, astragalus, pau D’arco, fennel seed.
    Biosynthesis and biochemical homeopathic agents in a living system.
    More info:

  • Darin

    That is very interesting! That is the cheapest can of Tuna fish as the Chicken of the Seas. I did not know that! I always buy those mostly of the time. Thank for letting us know! I do really appreciated it!

  • sher

    Another source of mercury – emissions from crematories due to amalgam silver fillings. Children living near crematories (even miles away) are at risk of breathing mercury vapor.
    The website has a crematory emissions page and was started by a mom.

  • Kathleen Donnafield

    Thank you for sharing your personal story of how detrimentally your little girl was affected by eating tuna. We read very casual ‘warnings’ of how pregnant mothers should limit their intake of tuna, but when you read something as horrific as what your daughter and family experienced, it makes one want never to eat tuna again. Unfortunately, our government does not seem to care about safe-guarding the marketing of foods, or of informing what dangers there may be in certain foods. We have to, as human beings, make sure the FDA and USDA are held to a higher standard through transparency, by informing it’s citizens of unsafe foods. We will have to fight together to effect change because it’s obvious, those who have the power to safeguard this country’s citizens, do not have the desire. It’s shameful, indeed!

    • alina

      i think that a lot of ppl don’t know about the high levels of mercuryin everyday cans of tuna. the gov is fda approvving this but it is no more than a death sentince


    It’s like the mercury form coal power plants, only many times more comes from wood burning all around the world. EDF is correctly trying to get the world to do something to reduce this and the carbon black soot global warming, but the world is not doing enough. The oceans appear ruined from mercury poisening. I myself take zinc supplements to prevent heavy metal poisening and I hardly ever eat fish anymore. But it does not stop with heavy metals, friends. There is carbon monoxide, dioxin, and all the carcinogens in tobacco smoke except it is 12 times more carcinogenic. Even certified stoves violate USA pm stds 50% of the time for burn it smart conditions and normal burning is 2-3 times worse. U.N officials say the recommeded pm std is 25 mcg/m3 but the regional pm in small rural cities is 25 mcg/m3 without adding in 25 mcg/m3 from an ave cert stove. That is why the U.N. is recommending developed countries phase out wood burning.

    Weatherization, insulation and free passive solar energy have to be used. Hydro, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, OTECS, even nuke power should be used instead of burning things.

  • This is something the EPA and the FDA have known about processed tuna for sale in the US. They don’t test the fish for mercury levels as the lobbyists pay them to much not to. It’s pretty much the same with steel mills still belching smoke uncontrollably into the air,
    coal processing/energy plants doing the same, and old nuclear reactors going unchecked by safety teams as they should. The people “Who Own the Gold” in the corporate world feel it is their place and privilege to buy representatives and senators votes to legislate in ways that are clearly harmful in a multitude of ways to the public at large!!

  • dee

    since i went vegetarian in 05 (i do not eat any sea creatures either), i’ve been trying to teach ppl about this. they don’t listen. they just say fish is brain food. i’m sorry for what your family went through but am glad all is better now.take care.

  • Emily

    It’s worth mentioning that tuna is really the worst out of our choices for fish when it comes to mercury poisoning. However, you can still get your omega-3s in from other fish that are known to be low-mercury, such as salmon, tilapia, (and if you’re not kosher, shellfish). One thing Ms. Waldman fails to talk about are the alternatives to tuna. Please know that there are many other fish out there that do not retain and pass on mercury at the level that tuna does.

  • Kelly

    I suggest Bentonite Clay. It is taken mixed in juice or water. It will absorb heavy metals and toxins in the intestinal tract and cause them to be excreted. Bentonite Clay is also wonderful to use when detoxing. Detoxing can cause the liver to become enlarged and tender while the body is being cleansed. However, Bentonite Clay will absord the toxins and the liver will return to normal size without being tender.

    • Krista Gallagher

      But bentonite often contains high levels of lead :/

  • This is an important article and important discussion. You may have read that the coal industry is trying to vastly increase coal exports to Asia, especially to China, through ports in the Northwest. This is a game-changer for mercury poisoning worldwide, and, of course, for the climate. We need to stop coal exports from Oregon and Washington. There is huge money invested in this. A couple of years ago, Warren Buffett bought a controlling interest in BNSF Railway, which makes over a quarter of its revenue hauling coal. The rich stand to get richer as our children and grandchildren stand to live in a more polluted world.

    • alina

      the whole world is so greedy the big ppl don’t care if they kill all of us! I know the tuna that i ate had way to much mercury i spit it out imediately and i’ll eat just about anything! I don’t trust the preservative foods regulated by the government!

  • alina

    well i think the best thing to do is taste it! i love tuna and i eat it all the time by itself… i opened up a can the other day took a bite and spit it out bc i could taste the mercury so strong it made my fillings zing! i don’t know if the tuna was from bad water or is most of the ocean corupted?

  • TammyB

    I am working at a location where the Mercury levels in our building are high, and we have had a variety of “symptoms” that each of the employees were having. The most consistent is headaches, fatigue, red eyes, nausea, but some were having numbness of the tongue and lips, shaking hands, arms & legs, not being able to articulate and explain yourself or losing what you know and not being able to say it. How do we find out what levels and what periods of time being around these levels are doing to our bodies?

    • Molly Rauch

      It sounds like you have some serious health effects. Please, seek the advice of a physician who can evaluate and treat your symptoms. According to the EPA (see, the effects of mercury on the body depend on the chemical form of mercury, the age of the person exposed, the route of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, or dermal contact), and the underlying health of the person exposed. For these reasons, it’s probably not possible to generalize about the effects of certain levels of exposure. The symptoms of mercury exposure (again, from the EPA) include: “tremors; emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness); insomnia; neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching); headaches; disturbances in sensations; changes in nerve responses; performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. At higher exposures there may be kidney effects, respiratory failure and death. People concerned about their exposure to elemental mercury should consult their physician. Symptoms of high exposures to inorganic mercury include: skin rashes and dermatitis; mood swings; memory loss; mental disturbances; and muscle weakness. People concerned about their exposure to inorganic mercury should consult their physician.”

  • Jason H.

    It doesn’t say exactly how much tuna the child was getting. That’s kind of a critical detail, rather than scaring people off tuna altogether. Was it once a week, multiple times a week, every day, few times a month, etc.

  • IC

    I don’t like this article because she is blaming tuna for her own lack of common sense. If we are told not to eat certain types and amounts of fish while pregnant and nursing, why would you constantly feed it to a small child? Anything not in moderation can make someone unhealthy so she had to be giving the girl a lot of tuna. I’m shocked that she was giving a child that young sushi. I have been a pescetarian for 6 years & only limited my intake of salmon, canned tuna, Pollock, whitefish, and completely eliminated sushi. My daughter is thriving… But then again as a parent I’m not feeding her things that even I should be eating in moderation.