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MERCURY RISING -
CONTAMINATED FISH

If, like Oprah Winfrey, mad cow disease has made you swear off hamburgers, you might be eating more fish instead. Fish are touted as a low-fat, healthy food that can help prevent heart disease and other illnesses. But recent reports saying that as little as a half can of tuna per day contains enough mercury to be harmful to developing fetuses, infants and young children make it apparent that dolphin safety isn't your only concern.

Tuna, other seafood and freshwater fish, many experts say, can contain dangerous levels of mercury. The fish are often contaminated by emissions from coal-fired power plants, incinerators and other industrial facilities that end up in the water, where mercury turns into its organic form, methylmercury, and accumulates in fish tissue.

"We have very few cases in the environmental community where the detrimental effects are as clear as they are with mercury," says Jackie Savitz, executive director of Coast Alliance, a coalition of 300 environmental groups across the country. "We're looking at over 1,600 fish advisories for mercury in the U.S. in 1996 alone. That means there are 1,600 places where people can't fish out of their local waters safely." Savitz says pregnant women represent the number one risk group for mercury consumption because mercury can cross the placenta.

The second group at most risk is children, because their nervous systems are just developing and are more sensitive to toxic exposure. "Effects at lower levels of mercury contamination are subtle, more obscure and, in a way, more dangerous," Savitz says. "Most people probably know a child who didn't develop neurologically as quickly as he or she should have. Delayed neurological development is actually the result that would be caused by mercury poisoning."

Finding the Source

Coal-fired power plants are the leading source of mercury contamination in the U.S., and represent an estimated 33 percent of mercury emissions. Municipal, industrial and medical waste incinerators contribute another 29 percent to the annual release of about 158 tons of mercury. "The most obvious way to reduce mercury emissions is to stop burning coal," Savitz says. "There are also technologies that remove mercury at the stack level."

"Electric utilities are getting a free ride on their mercury pollution," agrees Peter Morman, a policy associate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "While other sources are cleaning up, there are no requirements for power plants to cut their emissions."

Newer technologies and waste segregation could reduce mercury emissions from another major source. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) is encouraging hospitals to replace medical devices with non-mercury alternatives. For example, many hospitals are switching to non-mercury thermometers. Another focus of reform is simply good housekeeping: requiring mercury to be separated out so it doesn't end up in an incinerator--and then in fish that people eat. The State of New Jersey requires that mercury in hospitals be segregated, and this has reduced that state's medical waste mercury emissions a hundred fold.

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Written by: Becky Gillette, Article originally published in E/The Environmental Magazine


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