Kerry Easton

(WOMENSENEWS)–Kerry Easton’s blond mane held secrets. Last year, she decided to unveil them by participating in the largest-ever study of mercury contamination as measured in human hair.

“I’d been eating sushi and tuna twice a week for years,” says Easton, a fundraiser in San Francisco. “As a result, my hair had very high levels of mercury–more than double the level of one part per million that the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.”

Fearing her health could be at risk, Easton rid her diet of tuna, which, along with shark, swordfish and mackerel, has higher-than-average mercury contamination.

Last month, Easton had her hair tested again and learned her mercury levels were half what they had been the year before, a welcomed discovery since she and her husband hope to start a family and mercury can harm a developing fetus’s nervous system.

“Our research shows that women who eat fish regularly are at high risk for mercury contamination,” says Steve Patch, a professor of statistics at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and co-author of the mercury study. “Most of this mercury likely comes from coal-fired power plants that release the pollutant into our lakes, rivers and streams.”

Patch’s study, released last month, enrolled a record 6,600 subjects (4,400 of them women) and adds to evidence that mercury contamination in the United States is a growing problem. In 2002, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 6 U.S. women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her body to harm a developing fetus. Patch’s study indicates that 1 in 5 women–25 percent more than previously estimated–have this level of mercury in their bloodstreams.

Volunteers Tested Hair Samples

Co-sponsored by the San Francisco-based Sierra Club and the Washington-based Greenpeace, Patch’s study enrolled volunteers who each paid $25 for home hair-testing kits then had their mercury levels analyzed by a professional lab.

This research is part of health advocates’ efforts to raise public concern about the dangers of mercury contamination: damage to the heart, nervous system, kidneys and liver in adults and autism, cerebral palsy and attention deficit disorder in children.

Mercury is of special concern to women, since women bear children, and since mercury can exacerbate conditions for which women are particularly at risk: fibromyalgia, infertility, multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.

Possible sources of mercury contamination include air pollution and exposure to thermometers and blood pressure machines containing the liquid metal. “We examined several possible sources, including dental amalgams and flu vaccines,” says Patch. “We found little relationship between these sources and higher-than-average levels. But we did find a very strong relationship between fish consumption and elevated mercury.”

Study subjects who ate eight or more servings of seafood per month had 0.9 parts per million of mercury in their hair. Subjects who ate no fish had dramatically lower levels: 0.06 parts per million, or 15 times less.

Air Pollution Affects Fish

Mercury winds up in fish when coal-burning power plants release the metal into the atmosphere, where it mixes with rain and falls to the earth, polluting waterways. Bacteria in water transform mercury into methyl-mercury. Small “bottom feeder” fish eat this toxic bacteria. Predatory fish then eat the smaller fish, which is why large predatory species have the highest levels of mercury contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Md., advise women who may become pregnant to refrain from eating fish with mercury levels that average more than 0.55 parts per million: king mackerel, orange roughy, shark, swordfish and tilefish. They also recommend women avoid fish and shellfish that average more than 0.12 parts per million mercury: bluefish, croaker white, lobster, Spanish mackerel, marlin, scorpion fish, tuna and sea trout.

In 2004, the EPA announced that fish in virtually every U.S. lake and river were contaminated with mercury. To protect residents from affected species, 48 states have issued fishing advisories on mercury.

Though the FDA has yet to honor health advocates’ calls for mandatory mercury warning labels on freshwater fish, San Francisco now requires its grocery stores to issue warnings in English, Spanish and Chinese.

“Authorities urge women who are pregnant, plan to get pregnant, are nursing or have a child under eight to consider limiting their consumption of large fish,” says Felice Stadler of the Mercury Policy Project, based in Montpelier, Vt. “But the real solution to this problem is not to stop eating fish, but to go after the sources that are contaminating our food supply. Elected officials are not being tough enough when it comes to cracking down on mercury sources.”

Project Turns Up Heat on Coal-Fired Plants

Like a host of other health groups, the Mercury Policy Project is turning up the heat on America’s 600 coal-fired power plants, which represent 55 percent of the nation’s electric generating capacity and the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States.

Last year, the EPA proposed that coal-fired power plants reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018. The agency also proposed that power companies be able to “buy” pollution credits instead of reducing emissions now.

Claiming these proposals are far from sufficient, 15 states are contesting the EPA’s recommendations in federal court, charging that they should not go into effect because they violate the 30-year-old Clean Air Act. States involved in the litigation are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

“Coal-fired power plants have the capacity to lower their mercury emissions, but they are still releasing 50 tons of mercury into the air each year,” says Patch. “Environmentalists say we could cut this down to five tons, reducing emissions by 90 percent if we increase the cost of energy generation to the consumer by just 5 percent.”

While health advocates and power companies continue wrangling, sponsors of the recent University of North Carolina-Asheville study are continuing to gather more hair samples in the hopes of publishing their study in an academic journal and strengthening the case against coal-fired power plants.

“Our research sheds light on how serious this problem is,” says Christina Kreitzer, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “We wouldn’t have to monitor what kinds of fish we eat if our leaders were cleaning up mercury from coal-fired power plants using the best technology available.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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For more information:

Sierra Club
“Mercury Survival Guide”:

Food and Drug Administration
“What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish”:

Mercury Education and Response Campaign:

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