As It Happens

This sculptor got heavy metal poisoning from working with mussel shells

After Gillian Genser began using mussel shells in her work, she started to experience insomnia, vomiting, shaking, sweating and confusion.

For years, Gillian Genser told baffled doctors she only worked with 'completely natural' materials

Artist Gillian Genser creates elaborate sculptures using all natural materials, such as shells and bones. In 2015, she was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning, after years of working with mussel shells. (Sierra Bein/Submitted by Gillian Genser)

After Toronto artist Gillian Genser began working on Adam, a mixed-media sculpture made mostly of mussel shells, she started to have trouble sleeping at night.

The insomnia quickly spiralled into vomiting, shaking, sweating and terrible confusion. She sometimes couldn't recognize her own family members, she says. Unable to keep food down, she dropped to 76 pounds.

"No one could understand what had happened to me," Genser told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I went from doctor to doctor to doctor."

She didn't know it at the time, but Genser was experiencing the onset of heavy metal poisoning, stemming from toxins in the mussel shells. She has written about her art and her illness in a Toronto Life feature called "My Beautiful Death."

The first man 

And it all began with Adam.

In 1998, Genser had just completed an elaborate eggshell-based sculpture called Lilith, who is the first woman, according to Jewish folklore.

Next, she decided she would make Adam, the first man in the Bible. 

"I had selected those shells because they so beautifully replicated muscle fibre — the striations of the shells, the movements of the shell so beautifully replicated muscle fibre," said Genser, who has made a career working with natural materials like bones and shells. 

"It was a lovely pun to make his muscles out of mussels. And they were black, and he was a beautiful black man, being first man."

Adam, an all natural sculpture made in part from mussel shells by Toronto artist Gillian Genser. (Submitted by Gillian Genser)

She would buy the mussels by the bagful from shops in Toronto's Chinatown, spending hours carefully picking out ones with the perfect shapes and patterns. 

When she got home, she'd cook them up for herself and her friends, then grind the shells down into a fine powder that she could shape to her liking.

She often spent 12 hours at a time in her studio, breathing in the mussel dust. 

"It would coat my arms. It would coat the piece. And even though I would try to sort of dust off in the venting system, when I would pull my hands out, I was loaded in the dust," she said.

"And I would do, of course, what a child would do. I would wipe them all over my shirt and then just carry on."

'Completely natural'

As her illness worsened, she says her doctors couldn't figure out what was going on with her. She has pre-existing autoimmune deficiencies that made diagnosis more difficult.

Her mental health was deteriorating along with her physical self, so she saw a psychiatrist. At various points, she experimented with antidepressants, antipsychotics, even tranquilizers — all to no avail.

Eventually, she became too sick to work. After a little while away from Adam, she started to recover.

This eggshell sculpture by Toronto artist Gillian Genser is called Lillith, named for the the first woman, according to Jewish folklore. (Submitted by Gillian Genser)

"But, of course, after I got a little better I went right back to it because I wanted to continue with my art," she said.

"To be fair to my medical doctors, they did always ask me, 'Are you working with anything poisonous?' And I would always say to them, 'Oh no, it's completely natural.'"

Polluted waters, polluted shellfish 

Mussels may be natural, but ocean pollution isn't. 

The molluscs can act like ocean filters, and over time, they accumulate toxins from their surroundings. 

"High concentrations of marine biotoxins in shellfish can cause illness in people who eat them," warns Health Canada on its page about shellfish food safety.

"The federal government has a food safety program in place to monitor shellfish and ensure the safety of shellfish sold in Canada."

But those safety mechanisms are meant to protect consumers from food-based poisoning — not from inhaling grounded-up shells every day for several years. 

Gillian Genser works with natural materials, such as shells and bones, in her studio. ( Sierra Bein/Submitted by Gillian Genser)

Genser finally got her diagnosis in 2015 from the Environmental Health Clinic at Toronto's Women's College Hospital, where doctors discovered high levels of arsenic and lead in her system.

Soon after, she read about toxins in seafood and visited an invertebrates expert at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

"He immediately said, 'People don't realize how dangerous these things are,' and he knew right away that the mussels would be very toxic," she said.

"That was the beginning of my journey to understand what had happened to me."

'He poisoned me'

The metals will be in her system for the rest of her life, Genser said, affecting her metabolism and nervous system. She has an increased risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

"I'm spiralling down these days, to tell you the truth," she said. "I am doing very poorly and I'm not really sure what light is at the end of the tunnel for me." 

But even after learning what the mussels had done to her — she finished Adam.

After all, she says, he was always meant to highlight the devastating impact human beings have had on the planet. 

When you open up Adam, he has intricate organs inside. (Submitted by Gillian Genser)

"I keep thinking about him because when I made him he was made to be a re-expression of what should have been the human-first perception of the ecosystem of the world. It originally began with that terrible statement that man has dominion over all the animals, and I wanted to re-state that and say that approach took us to a very bad place," she said.

"It is very ironic that, of course, this piece, who was representing that first Adam, was so toxic and that he poisoned me."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Ashley Mak.