The results are in. The Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville recently released the interim results for Greenpeace's ongoing Mercury Hair Sampling Project, which has been gathering hair samples from volunteers nationwide.
Out of the 597 hair samples, 126 women of childbearing age (21 percent) had mercury levels above the Environmental Protection Agency limit of one microgram of mercury per gram of hair.
The interim results, released Oct. 20, also show that Florida had the highest number of toxic mercury returns out of the 43 states sampled, including the Virgin Islands. Of the 67 women who volunteered for the study in Florida from Aug. 26 through Aug. 30, 26 had mercury levels higher than the acceptable EPA limit; 10 of those women had twice the acceptable EPA limit and one had over five times the acceptable EPA limit.
The majority of toxic samples were taken from South Florida, with 19 of the women from Miami, four from Fort Lauderdale and three from Orlando. Every Floridian who donated hair for the study had some detectable level of mercury.
The study attributes high levels of mercury to coal-burning power plants, which release 41 percent of the country's industrial mercury pollution. The tall stacks at power plants emit pollutants high into the atmosphere, so as to reduce the threat of local contamination. Since mercury is heavier than oxygen, it eventually settles back to land and water. But it can travel thousands of miles before settling back down.
"Interestingly enough, most of the mercury pollution in the western United States actually travels from Asia," says Casey Harrell, coordinator for Greenpeace's Energy and Toxics Campaigns. "This is how fish in the deep sea can become contaminated with mercury."
Once in the ocean, mercury forms a toxic compound known as methyl mercury.
"The smallest fish in the ocean eat this methyl mercury. Then bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and the mercury contamination works its way up the food chain," says Harrell. "That's why the largest and oldest fish in the ocean, such as tuna and shark, have the highest levels of accumulated mercury in their systems. Unfortunately, these fish are also the types humans eat most frequently."
Mercury that settles on land also has the potential to contaminate local waterways.
Sheryl Heitker, an Orlando mother and participant in the study, told Greenpeace, "It's upsetting to me that my mercury level is so high … . It seems that even staying within the minimum government recommendations is not safe."
Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Ph.D., a specialist in methyl mercury at the EPA in Washington, D.C., concluded in 2004 that nearly 300,000 newborns in the United States have higher than acceptable in utero blood levels of mercury. She also found that mercury levels were seven times higher among women who ate fish or shellfish two or more times a week.
Based on an analysis of fish done by the Food and Drug Administration, the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Mercury Policy Project, Greenpeace suggests not eating grouper, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish at all, due to the high levels of mercury contained in those species. They also recommend eating less than three 6-ounce servings per month of bluefish, croaker, halibut, lobster, rockfish, sea bass, sea trout, canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks. They encourage citizens to "check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family or friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas."
Despite these recommendations, Greenpeace suggests that lowering fish consumption is missing the point entirely. "Regulating fish consumption is turning the argument on its head," says Chris Miller, spokesperson for the Greenpeace Clean Energy Now Campaign. "We must get to the root of the mercury problem, which will eventually require us to switch from coal-burning power plants to cleaner sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power," he says. "Because we just can't keep going at this rate."
Final results of Greenpeace's Mercury Hair Sampling Project will be released in the spring of 2005. If you want to participate in the study and get tested, you can purchase a test kit for $25 on the Greenpeace website at www.greenpeaceusa.org. Greenpeace sells the kits at cost, and does not profit from the sales.