Mercury rising…in all the wrong places

I regularly write about the serious health risks linked to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), including obesity and Type II diabetes. And there’s something else to worry about when you eat HFCS. In two studies, researchers linked HFCS with mercury contamination.

In the first study, researchers found mercury in nearly 50 percent of the commercial samples of HFCS they tested. In the second study, researchers tested 55 name-brand foods that list HFCS as the top one or two ingredients. They discovered that nearly 1/3 of the popular food products they tested contained mercury. Including Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and Kraft Foods’ Barbeque Sauce.

Of course, the FDA said not to worry.

But should you believe them?

Remember, the FDA also told us not to worry about a blood pressure drug linked to a 30 percent spike in cancer.

Let me be clear, there is no safe level of mercury exposure. Especially when it comes to children. Indeed, children are most likely to eat foods made with HFCS. Even miniscule amounts of mercury exposure can put children at risk for neurological problems and developmental disabilities.

Tragically, the FDA has known since 2004 about the solid evidence connecting mercury to HFCS. And once again, we can thank an FDA insider turned whistleblower.

In 2004, Dr. Renee Dufault worked as an environmental health researcher at the FDA. That year, she uncovered a disturbing EPA report. She learned that some chemical companies make a chemical called soda lye by pumping salt through large vats of mercury. Food manufacturers then use that same soda lye to make HFCS.

Concerned that mercury might wind up in the HFCS, Dr. Dufault took 20 samples from three different HFCS manufacturers. Then, she sent the samples to the University of California-Davis and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. Not surprisingly, these top national labs found mercury in most of the HFCS samples.

In September 2005, Dr. Dufault presented her findings to the FDA Center for Food Safety. And they instructed her to do…nothing. In fact, they ordered her to cease her investigation completely.

But Dr. Dufault persisted, despite her boss’ orders. She had her original 20 samples tested again. This time, researchers found traces of mercury in 50 percent of the HFCS samples.

In 2009, Dr. Dufault published her results, together with eight collaborating scientists, in the journal Environmental Health.

In their report, Dr. Dufault and her colleagues painted a grim picture. They estimated that if someone consumed products that contain the contaminated HFCS, they would ingest 200 micrograms of mercury per week. (They made this estimate using average weekly HFCS consumption rates.) And that’s three times the level we know is neurotoxic in children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age.

The Corn Refiners Association went straight into damage control mode. It hired the consulting firm ChemRisk to analyze these findings. (You may remember ChemRisk as the group that testified in defense of the polluters in the well-known lawsuit involving legal activist Erin Brockovich.)

And they did a good job of muddying the water.

You see, there are three different classes of mercury. The first is found in nature as a pure chemical element. The body absorbs only .001 percent of this elemental mercury.

The second class of mercury is called “inorganic.” Your body absorbs these forms of mercury more easily. Which makes them more dangerous.

The third type of mercury is called “organic.” These forms of mercury are the most easily absorbed. Therefore, they’re the most dangerous of all. They originate from fossil-fuel emissions. And they can build up in fatty tissues in fish, for example. You can also find them in low-quality fish oil supplements.

The labs that analyzed Dr. Dufault’s samples said they believed her samples contained organic forms of mercury. But the legal “experts” muddied the water enough to question the labs’ reports. And that was good enough for the FDA to drop its investigation.

Dr. Dufault retired from FDA about two years later. (The timing of her “retirement” smells rather fishy to me.)

The corn-syrup industry claims that HFCS manufacturers in the U.S. no longer use mercury to make soda lye. No thanks to the FDA, however.

The government’s overall “stand” on mercury has been…well…mercurial. Mercury commonly turns up in emissions from electric power plants. Yet, the EPA forbids any product containing mercury from being dumped into solid waste landfills.

(On a related note: The Obama administration tried banning normal incandescent light bulbs and wanted us to replace them with “high-efficiency” bulbs. And yes, those contain… you guessed it…mercury. That means we had better hope the high-efficiency bulbs never burn out…because we’ll never be able to get rid of them!)

California permits no mercury in foods. Yet amalgam dental fillings still contain mercury. And those sit permanently in your mouth.

In fact, the government’s treatment of mercury reminds me of an old joke…

A gentleman walks down the street and sees something brown and steamy. He turns to his friend and says: “Hmm, it looks an awful lot like dog droppings.” Then he sniffs it and says, “it smells like dog droppings.” Then, he tastes and says, “it tastes like dog droppings too.” Finally, he turns to his friend and says, “Golly gee, sure glad we didn’t step in it!”

The government keeps missing the hot, steaming mess right in front of it. And it looks like the consumer could be in for some deep…problems.


1. “Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury,” Washington Post, ( January 28, 2009

2. “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy ( January 2009

3.“Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar,” Environmental Health 2009; 8(2)