What Doctors Should Tell You About Mercury, But Don’t

BY ON May 20, 2012

Doctor listening with stethescope to pregnant woman's belly

In a completely unscientific study (polling my friends and readers), I’ve discovered that OB/GYNs are up to the task of warning patients not to eat certain fish, but they don’t bother to explain why. Same goes for most pregnancy books. What gives?

Why aren’t we system thinkers? Why when a doctor takes the time to explain that certain fish are contaminated can they not also say, “The mercury is there because of emissions from coal-fired power plants that make their way into our waterways and accumulate in fish flesh.” That wasn’t hard. It’s also not hard to explain why predator fish or seafood highest on the food chain have the highest levels of mercury. Do doctors think we won’t understand? Or do they not even think about it themselves?

I have no complete answers here. This is more of a rant. When I wrote a chapter on seafood for my second book, The Conscious Kitchen, it took me more time than the 10 other chapters combined. Seafood can be unbelievably polluted. Yes it’s touted as heart-healthy and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. But think about it in the most basic, commonsense terms: Our oceans, rivers, lakes and ponds are like a sewer system of all of the environmentally destructive things on the planet. Chemical runoff. Factory waste. PCBs. Air particle pollution. Everything we pour down our drains—from pharmaceuticals to cleaning products to hormone-disrupting cosmetic residues. Plastic garbage. All of it ends up in our waterways. Ingesting seafood from these waters is a health hazard, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Trying to explain this to readers in an accessible way that wouldn’t make them throw the book across the room (as I wanted to do with my laptop as I wrote) was extremely difficult. But I managed. Doctors can, too.

The truth is that humans are not system thinkers. We see individual puzzle pieces rather than the whole picture. And this is reinforced by our doctors and by the books we turn to for advice when pregnant. Those coal-fired power plants are out of sight, so they’re out of mind. We can’t really visualize the steps that lead to mercury being in our fish, so we don’t naturally trace it back to the source. We just know that we’re not supposed to eat certain things when incubating. And leave it at that. Compartmentalized.

Well I have a challenge for you. The next time someone—doctor, friend, neighbor, scientist at a dinner party—brings up mercury or other contaminants in fish, ask them to connect the dots for you. Not because you don’t already know how it gets in there, but because it’s a crucial mental exercise. By making people repeat the system out loud over and over again, maybe we’ll all be more comfortable talking about origins of problems—about becoming systems thinkers. The mercury isn’t just in there, it came from somewhere. So ask questions and inspire people to talk without compartmentalization.

I imagine a world where people explain the systems behind big issues like our increasingly polluted food systems. It’s a world in which OB/GYNs tell patients what they can and can’t eat—and then go one step further to suggest organizations they can get involved with if they think polluted seafood is unconscionable. And what better moment to get active than when pregnant? It will get your muscles ready for fighting for a better world for your kids. They’re going to need it.


TOPICS: Coal, Food, Mercury Poisoning, Motherhood, Pollution, Pregnancy, Science