Friday, January 11, 2008

Mercury Saga Continues (and Continues...?) in South Carolina

DHEC refuses to test people for mercury poisoning, but hints at an interest at doing an epidemiological study -- were the funds to do so available. Meanwhile, its gone ahead and issued a draft permit for a coal plant that would dump over 100 pound of mercury into the atmosphere. Are they doing enough to protect us?

See the latest in an article from the Post and Courier below:

Mercury pollution goes under DHEC microscope
By Tony Bartelme

The Post and Courier

Friday, January 11, 2008

COLUMBIA — Amid rising concerns over mercury, the state has begun an intensive review of mercury pollution that may include a first-ever study into whether the poisonous metal is harming South Carolinians, the state's top health official said Thursday.

Recent news reports and the debate over a proposed coal-fired power plant in the Pee Dee sparked the agency's new push, said Earl Hunter, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"Given that attention, I thought it was time to take a comprehensive look at its prevalence in the environment and its impact on our citizens," Hunter said.

The agency's move comes in the wake of a recent Post and Courier series that identified mercury hot spots in South

Carolina. Last year, the newspaper collected hair samples from people who ate fish from these hot spots and found some had dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.

The series also exposed how coal-fired power plants, cement factories and incinerators, many around Charleston, annually emit thousands of pounds of mercury into the air. It showed how DHEC tests more than 1,800 fish every year but had never checked to see whether mercury was harming people.

The series prompted protests in Florence over Santee Cooper's plan to build a coal-fired power plant in the Mercury Triangle, an area bounded by the Great Pee Dee, Little Pee Dee and Lynches rivers that has some of the state's most mercury-contaminated fish. It also prompted a group of physicians to write Hunter in November and urge DHEC to begin testing people immediately for mercury.

During DHEC's monthly board meeting, Hunter acknowledged the physicians' letters but said it would be difficult to set up a large-scale system to test people.

He said a better approach is to do a targeted epidemiological study. His agency also has begun looking at better ways to warn the public of mercury's dangers. By March, for instance, DHEC will begin posting warning signs at boat landings.

Conservation groups applauded DHEC's move.

For years, "there's been a lack of epidemiological studies for pollutants like mercury and port pollution that are having huge impacts on people," said Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League. "This is great news."

Tiny amounts of mercury can be dangerous. The equivalent of one drop can contaminate fish in a 20-acre lake. The substance builds up in people's tissues when they eat certain species of fish, especially predators such as largemouth bass and catfish. At high-enough levels, it can cause nerve damage, heart disorders and other health problems.

Last year, South Carolina issued warnings for people to avoid or limit consumption of fish in more than 1,700 miles of rivers, mostly in the coastal plain.

Hunter said the agency has worked hard to warn people about mercury, distributing roughly 50,000 pamphlets a year explaining which fish are safe to eat and which ones people should avoid. The agency also worked with the auto industry and Nucor, a major mercury polluter, to encourage auto salvage companies to remove mercury switches from junk cars before they're sent to smelters.

But he said a comprehensive program developed in Louisiana could serve as a model for what might be done here. That state has done extensive studies on fish, people and the sources of mercury pollution. He added that the Louisiana state legislature funded that program, and that his agency so far has no such funding.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or


Anonymous said...

Am I misunderstanding? You don't want them to evaluate and conduct an epidemiological study? A SERIOUS study that could potentially be among the first of its kind in the world?

Good thinking. I guess we'll all just take your word for it!

Moultrie said...

hey anonymous -- yup, you misunderstood -- where did they say they didn't want a study? frankly, i'd like DHEC to start testing now, instead of waiting for the general assembly to give DHEC the money to do a study that Santee Cooper will lobby the general assembly not to fund (or had you already figured that angle out, bro?)

Anonymous said...

You don't think it takes money to do something right? Random testing isn't going to do anything but confuse the situation. I'd think that's NOT what you want.

Off the top of my head, I'd like to see a comprehensive study, possibly supported by a University in this state, that (1) tests for mercury levels in blood, (2) evaluates diet and vitamin use (that is, what effect does a heallthy diet have on the body's ability to remove/overcome mercury? what about an unhealthy diet?), (3) considers the source of fish eeaten, (4) considers occupational exposures, smoking, dental amalgam, etc., and (5) evaluates actual effects of the mercury levels they find on the human body and human development.

Would Santee Cooper lobby against such a study? In their shoes, I would want the study to go forward - but to consider enough factors to be meaningful and to make a contribution to the literature on the subject.