.Russian River Mercury Contamination

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Heavy Mettle

State regulators ponder mercury contamination in the Russian River. Is Judith Eisen its first victim?

By Janet Wells

THREE YEARS AGO, Guerneville artist Judith Eisen was following her bliss, living in an idyllic beach hamlet in Thailand, using canvas and paint to capture stunning limestone cliffs and coral-studded azure water. She lived in a thatched-roof house, did yoga on the sand, crafted a book of postcard prints of her paintings. She introduced the beauty of Asia to her two grown daughters when they came to visit.

Then, one day in 1997, she got sick. Paradise became a whirl of fatigue, nausea, dizziness, stomach cramps, bowel problems, weakness, and muscle pain, forcing Eisen to embark on a nightmarish journey to unravel the mystery of her illness.

After almost two years of tests, special diets, and utter exhaustion, Eisen was astounded to find out that she has high levels of mercury, a toxic substance that is indelibly interwoven with northern California geology, history, and health.

Used during the gold rush, and once considered a strategically important material by the U.S. military, mercury mines dotted the hills all over Northern California. The bottom dropped out of the mercury market in the 1970s, and the mines have long been abandoned. But mercury is not a thing of the past: the Central Valley pumps about 460 pounds of the material a year into San Francisco Bay, and Bay Area industry is allowed to discharge another 70 pounds a year. Because of mercury, along with dioxins, pesticides, and PCBs, fish from San Francisco Bay is off limits for pregnant women and children.

In a January 1999 article, the Independent revealed that 200,000 cubic yards of mercury mine waste, containing 590,832 pounds of the heavy metal, have been eroding from an abandoned mine site into creeks that drain to Tomales Bay, a once pristine estuary nestled among the coastal hills on the Sonoma-Marin border. A recently completed $3 million cleanup effort has stemmed the flow of contamination, but Tomales Bay ducks show dangerously high levels of mercury, and ongoing fish studies may well show elevated mercury levels in Tomales Bay sharks and clams.

In Sonoma County, tailings from the Mt. Jackson mercury mine–located a few miles upstream from Eisen’s home–were used more than 15 years ago for road base during construction of the sewage treatment plant in Guerneville. While county health officials found no contamination from the mine waste, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board senior engineer Bob Tancreto has conceded that, after almost two decades, the wells and creeks in the mine area may “deserve another look.”

Eisen doesn’t know whether living near an abandoned mercury mine site for 20 years contributed to the elevated levels of mercury in her system. The source of Eisen’s mercury exposure will perhaps never be ascertained, and it’s not even certain that mercury is at the root of her illness. But in a world that is increasingly polluted by industrial waste, pesticides, chemicals, car exhaust, rampant viruses, and bacteria, Eisen wonders if she is the proverbial canary in the coal mine–and a harbinger of a health crisis on the horizon.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, a person complaining of acute fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and pain without any obvious source was as likely to be referred to a psychiatrist as a doctor. Now Western medicine must cope with an increasing number of patients presenting complex, often vague and seemingly inexplicable symptoms. Remember the rash of chronic fatigue syndrome in the ’80s and ’90s–a controversial diagnosis used to cover a puzzling array of complaints.

In short: the doctor may have little idea what’s really going on.

In Eisen’s case, the initial diagnosis was fibromyalgia, the current popular catchall for elusive muscle pain and fatigue.

Dressed in a plaid flannel jacket, she tells her story over a decaf cappuccino laced with honey. With her square face, shoulder-length gray hair, and strong thick hands, Eisen, 57, looks as much like a rancher as an artist. But her energy level is in striking contrast to her solid build. Her blue eyes fade with fatigue as the conversation stretches into an hour. “[The doctors] told me there was nothing they could do for me, and that I should go home and learn to live with it,” she says. “I was in such a torment of pain all the time. There was no relief from it.”

While Eisen suspects that the poisioning started while living near the Russian River, she first noticed something wrong in Thailand in early 1997, when a minor leg injury didn’t heal after weeks of rest. “I thought I’d sprained a ligament from doing yoga,” she says. “Until that point in time I had been a really healthy person in my life and very strong physically. I’d never had an illness that I didn’t get over.”

Soon she was hit with bouts of dizziness and nausea. Eisen thought she had the flu or a cold. After two months, she realized she wasn’t improving and sought advice from doctors in Singapore and Malaysia. In May, she called Talia, her oldest of two daughters, who was alarmed enough to arrange for her mother’s immediate departure from Thailand. Eisen had to use a wheelchair to get to and from the airplane.

Back in Sonoma County, broke and sick, Eisen got on the county medical plan and started a battery of tests at Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa. Doctors diagnosed her leg problem as an arthritic condition and treated it with arthroscopic surgery. Then came the fibromyalgia diagnosis, which Eisen feels was a brushoff. “They couldn’t be bothered. That’s what happens to most people who have weird things,” she says. “I’ve talked to people who have immune deficiency problems who get treated as if they were crazy.”

Nursed by her daughter, Eisen spent several months bedridden, in a haze of pain. In early fall, she went to see a naturopath who works as a local physician’s assistant. “He likes these kinds of diseases,” Eisen says. “It’s kind of like a puzzle and a challenge to unwrap it and figure it out.”

First came an elimination diet–rice and vegetables only, which gave Eisen her first taste of improving health: after six months on the diet, she was able to once again sleep regularly.

A new battery of tests, tracking allergies and bowel function, showed that Eisen’s immune system was working overtime, treating almost everything as an invader. The naturopath put Eisen on a rotational diet, a decades-old nutritional program to minimize the effects of food allergies. Meal planning came in the form of a spreadsheet, with grains, fruits, and dairy rotated into her diet on a very selective basis. After several months, Eisen started to notice less muscle and joint pain.

Then the naturopath asked if Eisen had ever been tested for heavy-metal poisoning. She hadn’t, so she carefully clipped several strands from the back of her scalp and sent them to the Great Smokies Diagnostic Laboratory in North Carolina. Rarely ordered by hospitals, the hair test is one of the methods recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate mercury exposure.

Eisen’s test results came back in January 1999: on the laboratory’s zero-to-1 scale, Eisen’s mercury level was 3.2. She also showed elevated levels of lead, another known toxin. “My doctor said, ‘Oh my, this could be causing all your problems,’ ” she says.

Eisen used the Internet to research mercury poisoning, and says that, indeed, her symptoms fit the profile.

MERCURY, linked to myriad health problems, including nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, seizures, and brain damage–even death–is a nasty substance in several forms. Liquid mercury can be absorbed through the skin. Mercury vapors can be inhaled from spills and incinerator waste.

Cinnabar, the reddish-brown ore form of mercury that was mined in California and processed using high temperatures, is not apparently hazardous to humans. But the waste from ore processing becomes a threat when it comes up through the food chain, turning into an organic substance that bioaccumulates, causing long-term health problems for animals and people. Exposure to the organic form of mercury is often attributed to eating too much tainted fish and shellfish.

Eisen has eaten a mostly vegetarian diet for years, although she ate fish locally, and in Thailand indulged in one particular dish–pla rad prik–fish cooked in hot red chile paste. Eisen can’t pinpoint any specific mercury exposure, but she theorizes that living for two decades in mercury-rich Sonoma County could have seeded her system, which was then spiked by the Thai fish to levels high enough to make her sick.

“It was like getting hit by a sledgehammer,” she says of her illness. “I never felt well after that. I can tell you now that my immune system was collapsing. But then I certainly didn’t think of mercury poisoning.”

John Risher, senior toxicologist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, Ga., is skeptical. “A 3.2 [mercury level] indicates that you have been exposed more than the typical American,” he says. “But it is absolutely not a level that would produce health effects.”

Bob Smith, vice president of elemental analysis at the Great Smokies Laboratory disagrees. “The level of mercury [regulators] react to is when mercury is coming out of their mouth and they are ready to be mined,” he says.

Eisen’s mercury level–especially in combination with her elevated levels of lead, since the two have dramatic synergistic effects–could definitely be causing her problems, Smith contends. “People with mercury have much higher allergy levels because it affects the pathways by which the body detoxifies.”

Risher acknowledges that the acceptable levels established by government agencies may be off base for some individuals who are far more sensitive to environmental toxins. “There is a great variability in the human population,” he says. But Risher maintains that Eisen’s case doesn’t “make sense. Mercury is a naturally occurring element. We’re all exposed to it all the time.”

MERCURY POISONING is comparatively rare. Last year, 90 people called a national emergency response line reporting mercury exposure, Risher says. All of those were accidental cases–kids finding the silvery liquid in a warehouse, someone breaking an old thermometer. Risher has had only one case of mercury exposure via food, in a woman who ate fish two to three times a day.

“She did have some symptoms that could be attributed to mercury,” he says. “She had a hair [mercury] level of 69 parts per million.”

Eisen’s lab test results translate into a mercury level of about just over three parts per million. The Food and Drug Administration has set the acceptable level of mercury in seafood at one part per million. Eisen knows she may be on a wild-goose chase in pursuing mercury as the cause of her illness. But it’s worth a try, she says. “Nobody in traditional medicine has anything to say about what to do about mercury poisoning, or immune deficiency syndromes for that matter,” she says. “I’m taking a chance that this is going to help me.”

On the advice of her naturopath and doctor, Eisen has started intravenous chelation treatments, a three-hour ordeal during which salts are pumped through her bloodstream to eliminate heavy metals from her system. The $100 treatments are not covered by insurance, and Eisen relies on her daughters to foot the bill. Once she completes 10 treatments, she will wait four months for new hair growth, then get another hair test to see if the levels of heavy metals in her body have decreased.

Eisen continues to carefully monitor her food intake, and she remains on permanent disability, unable to get back to her painting.

“I live with a constant level of pain and fatigue. Chronic fatigue is nothing like being exhausted,” she says. “It’s a total absence of energy, like your system is folding in on itself. You can’t move.”

“I raised two girls alone,” she adds. “I worked two to three jobs, put myself through school at Sonoma State, got a bachelor’s [degree] and a teaching credential, and I painted. That’s what my energy level was like. Today I have maybe four hours of energy a day. Then I have to head for bed.”

But, she says, that is a vast improvement over her state two years ago, when she needed a wheelchair to return to Guerneville. “I don’t know if what happened to me could be helpful to anyone else,” Eisen says. “But people who think they have other things, they might have mercury or heavy-metal poisoning.”

Eisen’s fear is that she represents the beginning of a marked and rapid decline in human health stemming from environmental pollution. Instead of painting, doing yoga, and traveling in Asia, she spends her time reading and researching. She rattles off statistics about increasing air pollution, dioxins, and viruses. She quotes works by doctors, scientists, and environmentalists. She has become an ardent critic of a corporate and regulatory culture that fosters the continued use of chemicals and toxins.

“There are all these agencies that say, ‘This is an acceptable level of toxin.’ When I was growing up, it probably was an acceptable level of toxin. Maybe we had one or two or three areas where toxins were a factor in our lives. Now we have 15 or 20 areas.

“When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring [in 1962], she said we’ve got to watch out for poisons and toxins in the water and the air,” Eisen adds. “It wasn’t visible then. But it’s [decades] down the line and every single thing she predicted came to pass.”

Eisen hopes that cases like hers bring focus to the issue before the data become irreparably doomsday. “Most people still don’t want to hear anything about the high level of pollution. Who wants to know about pesticide residue in food?” she says. “There’s no place on the planet that’s poison free.

“Who wants to know that?

“We’ve had to live with the slogan ‘Progress is our most important product’ for years. We’ve had to take a lot from corporations because of that attitude,” she adds. “It isn’t helpful to criticize the past, but now we just don’t have that much slack left in our environment. Unless we start giving a high priority to our environment and our health, and stop letting corporations make decisions about what the human environment is going to be like we’re going to see illnesses like mine in epidemic proportions.”

From the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.


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