Fishy business

A doctor solves a dangerous ocean mystery

Dr. Jane Hightower speaks during a book signing at Barnes & Noble.

Dr. Jane Hightower speaks during a book signing at Barnes & Noble.

Photo By nick dobis

Dr. Jane Hightower was working as a diagnostician at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco in 2000 when she realized there was something terribly wrong, and that it was up to her to solve a potentially lethal mystery.

One of her patients was inexplicably nauseated and exhausted, and an initial battery of tests didn’t reveal the reason for the illness. Hightower had a gut feeling that it was poisoning, so she decided to test the patient’s blood and hair. What she found was only the beginning. The tests showed her patient’s body contained more than four times the EPA’s safe level of mercury.

After that more patients came into her exam room suffering from similar symptoms, all having mercury poisoning as a common factor. These new patients fueled her curiosity: How exactly were these people being poisoned? The more she dug, the “fishier” the situation became.

Hightower, a 1983 graduate of Chico State University and 2004 distinguished alumna of the College of Natural Sciences, was in town recently to talk about how she solved the mystery and then went on to write a book about it. She spoke first to a largely student audience in Chico State’s Holt Hall on Friday (Oct. 2) and the following day for a book signing at Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

Hightower said she discovered that the mercury poisoning her patients was mainly a result of their consumption of fish. She found that pollution from coal-burning power plants, mining, cement factories, and other human sources that has run off into rivers and streams is the primary cause of increased levels of mercury in the oceans.

The mercury is absorbed by ocean bacteria, which are then eaten by plankton. The plankton are eaten by small fish that are inevitably eaten by bigger fish, and so on up the food chain to the largest fish, such as tuna, sharks and swordfish.

But these answers only left Hightower asking more questions—such as how the fishing industry was able to sell mercury-tainted fish and why the federal Food and Drug Administration seemed silent on the problem. This pursuit eventually became the focus of her new book, Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics, and Poison.

Her investigation led her to a pivotal 1977 court case, FDA vs. Anderson Seafoods Inc. The case dealt with whether mercury in the tissues of swordfish was an “added source” under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and what an acceptable level of mercury in fish should be.

What Hightower found deeply concerned her. In her research she found the FDA used incomplete data generated by officials in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party on which to base its recommendations for “safe” levels of mercury. The information was gathered, Hightower said, from a poisoning from a mercury fungicide added to grain in Iraq in 1971, when the Ba’ath Party was trying to take control of the oil fields in the area of Kirkuk and actively Arabizing its population by driving out its Kurdish residents.

Hightower also found that a Princeton professor who testified in defense of Anderson Seafoods Inc. stated that mercury was an all-natural element, even though the professor at the time had a graduate student who was conducting studies out in the ocean completely contradicting what the professor stated in trial.

But the most troubling aspect of the trial for Hightower was the testimony by the lead neurologist, who stated that children in the Iraqi study who were exposed to mercury had “only the most minimal retardation,” in his terms.

“They were a little slower to walk, perhaps a little slower to talk,” she said. “They had increased frequency of seizures compared to the control group. Their height was slightly shorter. Their head circumference was slightly smaller. These were all [described as] very, very minimal effects.” To Hightower, this minimizing was outrageous.

At the end of the trial, the judge ruled that the amount of mercury in fish could be raised from 0.5 to 1.0 micrograms per gram and allowed the potentially poisonous fish to go back on the market.

With the publication of her book, Hightower proudly notes, she has become one of the most hated people by the fishing industry, and she doesn’t have any plans of turning down the heat on grilling the industry until more legislative action is taken to protect consumers.

Hightower made a few recommendations at the end of her lectures. She advises eating smaller or low-on-the-chain fish and shellfish like sardines, sole, anchovies, herring, salmon and scallops. If you want to eat those large predatory fish, do so sparingly.

Her book may have finally answered the questions she had in that exam room back in 2000, but her hunt for the truth and for change continues.