Monday, October 29, 2007

Mercury Rising

Every year the U.S. EPA and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control release reports containing an inventory of industry emissions. These reports essentially tally up the amount and types of pollutants that are released into the environment by large polluters such as coal-fired power plants, steel mills, cement factories and incinerators.

Although there are differences between both state and federal inventories, both unequivocally agree that South Carolina’s coal-fired electric generators are the biggest source of manmade mercury pollution in the state.

According to the EPA’s 2005 Toxic Release Inventory, coal fired plants pumped over 1,460 pounds of mercury into the air and water. DHEC’s found this number to be more to the tune of 1,630 pounds of toxic mercury per year. [From Post and Courier Oct. 29, 2007 “Need for Power Fuels Mercury Contamination” by Tony Bartelme]

Either number is not a good sign. Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main source of poisoning in people. Mercury has been linked to brain damage, heart disease, as well as other health problems, and can be fatal to developing fetuses.

But what does this mean for South Carolinians?

A Post and Courier study released Oct. 28, 2007 [“The Mercury Connection” by Tony Bartelme] found the following…

--Of 41 people tested for The Post and Courier, 17 who eat freshwater fish from South Carolina rivers had hair samples with mercury levels higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Twenty-four had samples higher than what's typically found nationally in people who frequently eat fish.

--Six who were tested had mercury levels that would put them in the top 1 percent of those measured in a recent nationwide study. Leading mercury scientists and doctors contacted by the newspaper urged those with the highest levels to consider medical attention.

--State health officials have done little to document this toxin in people, especially those in poverty-stricken rural areas who depend on fish as a main source of food. Three years ago, DHEC acquired a $250,000 scanner capable of measuring mercury in human blood. This year, it acquired another scanner. So far, the agency has tested only one member of the public, a doctor from Hilton Head.

--Some of the state's worst mercury hot spots are in the Lowcountry near industrial polluters. Between Conway and Florence, hot spots form a "Mercury Triangle" where fish are so full of mercury that the state warns against eating a single bite of some species. Highly contaminated fish also are in hot spots on the outskirts of the Charleston metro area in the Edisto River, Four Holes Swamp and the Black River.

--Mercury contamination is a well-documented global problem in ocean fish, especially in large predator fish, such as swordfish and shark. But many freshwater fish caught from South Carolina's mercury hot spots have levels two to five times higher than swordfish off the coast, DHEC data shows. In fact, average mercury levels are so high in fish from some South Carolina rivers that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could order a national recall if they were sold in stores.

Do we really want to allow Santee Cooper to add an additional 300 pounds of mercury to our environment every year?

Fish DHEC Says to Avoid: Catfish (especially on the Little and Great Pee Dee rivers, Four Hole Swamp, Edisto and Black rivers), Largemouth bass (especially on the Black, Combahee, Edisto, Little Pee Dee, Great Pee Dee, Coosawhatchie rivers, Four Hole Swamp), Bowfin (Mudfish) (especially on South Santee, Edisto, LittlePee Dee, Great Pee Dee, Coosawatchie rivers, Four Hole Swamp), Chain Pickerel (especially on Little Pee Dee, Great Pee Dee, Lumbee, Edisto rivers, Four Hole Swamp), Warmouth (especially Four Hole Swamp, Edisto River).

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