Dec. 18, 2008 -- Actor Jeremy Piven has ended his role in the Broadway revival of the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow after being diagnosed with a "high mercury count."
Mercury is an element found throughout the environment. High levels of exposure to mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages, especially fetuses, according to background information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
WebMD spoke with Carlon Colker, MD, FACN, FACSM, who is treating Piven. Colker is the chief executive officer and medical director of Peak Wellness Inc. in Greenwich, Conn., and Beverly Hills, Calif.
Does Piven have mercury poisoning?
"The word poisoning implies some surreptitious act, like we poison rats," Colker tells WebMD. "The proper term is mercury toxicity. And the answer is 'yes' to mercury toxicity."
Colker says Piven's original mercury level was "shockingly elevated" at nearly six times the upper tolerable limit and the highest Colker had ever seen in his practice.
"You can imagine how stunned I was," Colker says.
What were Piven's symptoms?
Colker says Piven's symptoms started with "extreme fatigue and exhaustion" that began around the time Speed-the-Plow started. Colker says Piven didn't want to quit the show at that point, but his symptoms progressed to "profound neuromuscular weakness ... dizziness and nausea," says Colker.
At that point, Colker hospitalized Piven for three days at an unnamed hospital and brought in a cardiologist and neurologist who agreed with Colker's approach. Colker says the cardiologist checked on Piven's heart rhythm, which is now normal, and recommended "enforced rest" for Piven "because he knows Jeremy would crawl back to that stage if he could," Colker says. Piven is no longer in the hospital.
What caused Piven's mercury levels to soar?
Colker attributes Piven's high mercury level to fish in his diet.
"He was eating sushi twice a day for years ... and this is the problem," says Colker. The most common way that people are exposed to mercury is through fish and seafood, according to the FDA.
In March 2004, the FDA and EPA issued the following advice for pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children about mercury in fish and shellfish:
- Don't eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
- Eat up to 12 ounces per week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
- Limit albacore tuna to a maximum of 6 ounces per week, since it's higher in mercury than canned light tuna.
- Check local advisories about the safety of fish in your local waters. If no advice is available, limit your intake of local fish to a maximum of 6 ounces per week, and don't eat other fish that week.
The FDA and EPA note that fish is a healthy part of the diet and for most people, eating fish doesn't cause health problems.
In August 2008, researchers reported that some Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicines that they bought online contained mercury and other metals. Colker says Piven wasn't taking Ayurvedic medicines but was taking unnamed Chinese herbs "for general wellness."
Those herbs "may have contributed" but sushi was probably the main issue, according to Colker.
How is Piven being treated?
Colker says he gave Piven dietary restrictions -- including restricting seafood -- and ordered him to rest. Colker also gave Piven dietary supplements to "help clear the mercury" and protect his organs.
What is Piven's prognosis?
"He's on the right track. He's not doing very well yet, but he will be," Colker predicts.
Colker says Piven's long-term prognosis is "very good" because his mercury levels "continue to normalize." Colker expects that, if Piven follows doctor's orders, "he should be back in action by the end of February [or] the beginning of March."
"I think he's going to be just fine, he'll be 100%," says Colker.