I am reading through an unfinished manuscript by Andy Cutler which Joanne, the publisher, hopes to beat into shape and publish before long. I am on a chapter where Andy talks about how some people are susceptible to mercury poisoning and others less so. The original work on this issue was conducted on workers in chlor-alkali plants and OSHA standards were set according to the data. Andy points out that OSHA made the mistake of thinking that “one size fits all,” and didn’t consider the possibility that some people don’t tolerate mercury very well, and that working in a chlor-alkali plant would make said people quit pretty fast. The research was conducted on the people who stuck around and were probably resistant to mercury.
It is a fundamental mistake to “assume that people are cookie cutter clones of one another,” because everybody is unique by their DNA. People’s hair and eyes differ because of their genetics and the makeup of their hearts and livers and intestines differ, too.
What is important is not the amount of mercury in your body so much as at what rate you were exposed, how fast the mercury was absorbed and how slow it was to excrete. If you excrete mercury well, you will not get sick and the scientists who designed the studies in the chlor-alkali plants should have taken this into consideration.
Not everything depends on speed of excretion, though. Some people, because of their particular genetics, are susceptible to mercury attaching to and deactivating enzymes. A glitch can be introduced into a system that regulates how energy is produced or how the immune system functions. A person who has both this unfortunate genetic predisposition and is a slow excreter can become “devastatingly ill at startlingly low levels of mercury exposure.”
To illustrate how this has played out with the OSHA regulations, Andy uses the analogy of a bunch of frat boys who decide to stop drinking water and only drink beer. Some will be fine, most will be drunk all the time and a few will get really sick. If someone came along and studied the fraternity after all the guys who got sick quit, it would be like the studies that were done on the workers in the chlor-alkali plants.