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Medical Masquerade: A Closer Look at Mercury Exposure from Seafood Consumption

 (Left to right) Dr. Michael Gochfeld, Richard Gelfond, Dr. Nicholas Fisher

Although only a small percentage of Americans consume fish frequently (more than twice a week), they can incur health risks that are often unrecognized, in part because few studies have reported deleterious effects on adults. That story is beginning to change.

Such was the theme of “Medical Masquerade: A case study of Mercury Exposure from Seafood Consumption,” which took place on Wednesday, October 11, 2012 at NYAM. The event was sponsored by the NYAM Section on Clinical Nutrition and The Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research & Outreach, which was established by Richard Gelfond, CEO and Director of the IMAX Corporation.

Gelfond has long suffered from the effects of mercury poisoning in the fish he consumed; after eating fish two times a day on most days of the week as a means of staying healthy, he began to experience bouts of vertigo-like imbalance.

“In 2005, I noticed that my balance started to go—I couldn’t understand what was going on. When I played tennis, I felt like I was continually falling,” Gelfond said. “Worse yet, I had trouble crossing the street—I had to hold my wife’s hand. Finally, it got to the point where I could no longer even cross the street.”

Gelfond initially chalked up the symptoms to stress; he was on the verge of expanding his successful IMAX company while at the same time, going through a contentious divorce with his first wife. He consulted his general practitioner, who referred Gelfond to a neurologist. The initial diagnosis was a brain tumor. But when a flurry of MRIs and other scans failed to support this deadly diagnosis, Gelfond and his team of doctors was baffled. Worse yet, Gelfond’s condition began to worsen.

“I finally went back to the original neurologist, who asked how much fish I consumed on a regular basis. After explaining my regimen, he shared an article from the New York Times on the dangerously high levels of mercury that were being found in various types of fish. He then sent me to get my blood tested and it was then we discovered the level of Mercury was 77 micrograms—more than seven times the normal level in most humans.”

As Gelfond began to decrease his fish consumption, his symptoms began to slowly diminish. But it would take several months before most of the mercury would leave his blood system. A full seven years later, Gelfond still struggles with his balance. As a result of his own experiences, Gelfond worked with Stony Brook University to create The Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research & Outreach.

Michael Gochfeld, MD, a physician who specializes in the application of Medical Surveillance and Biomonitoring of Workers and Communities Exposed to Hazardous Wastes; Environmental and Ecological Risk Assessment, joined Gelfond and Nicholas Fisher, PhD, an expert at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at Stony Brook University, in a panel discussion on mercury poisoning in fish.

Gochfeld began his interest in various types of poisoning—mercury and lead in paint—some 40 years ago. What he discovered about mercury shaped his thinking on the consumption of fish. 

“Mercury is toxic to all forms of life,” Gochfeld said. “The challenge we face is balancing cultural aspects of fish, like fishing and the consumption of fish, what kinds of seafood people eat, and how often they eat it. This helps us to better understand leading factors in determining mercury levels.”

Gochfeld then went on to explain the various physical health aspects related to mercury poisoning in fish. He said the notion that eating fish is somehow healthier is not a bad one but it has propelled the fact that more people are eating fish. He also pointed out inaccurate studies done by the fishing industry about the low levels of mercury in fish—a means of industry self-preservation. He also went on to show how testing for mercury has evolved.

“We no longer see urine as an accurate means to identify mercury levels. We now rely on hair samples and blood to get the most accurate levels,” Gochfeld said.

Nicholas Fisher then discussed the ways in which humans and fish are exposed to mercury.

“A third of the mercury comes from volcanic activity that takes place under the sea. Another third can be traced from coal burning and gold and silver mining in which metallic substances are contained in water runoff,” Fisher said. “We have seen decreased levels of mercury in Europe and North America, but levels have significantly increased in India and Asia.”

To learn more about Mercury poisoning in fish and The Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research & Outreach, please visit

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Posted on October 12, 2012

Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285


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