High Mercury Levels found in Angelenos May be from Distant, Coal-fired Power Plants

My mercury level
My mercury level

"You're totally fine," said Lisa Liguori, Interim Director of the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service Station, where my hair was sent and analyzed for mercury. I came back with a .059, which is under the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) health guideline of 1.2 parts-per-million (ppm). "That level says you have a healthy amount of fish consumption."

So, it didn't turn green as I had imagined...but it was in the green zone! This was a relief, since I am a woman of "child bearing age," and mercury can cause all sorts of nasty health problems, particularly to developing fetuses.

My hair testing was a part of the Sierra Club's campaign to raise awareness about coal-fired power plants, which provide more electricity than any source for Angelenos. According to the EPA, U.S. coal-burning, electric utilities are the highest source of man-made airborne mercury emissions in the country.

"The Sierra Club angle is really interesting, because people know that [mercury] accumulates from large predatory fish, but they don't know that it comes from the atmosphere and travels for thousands of miles...the fact that it could have come from originally, across the globe, that's something that people don't think about," Liguori said.

After being shipped to Georgia, my hair was put in a direct mercury analyzer. The top one-centimeter was cut to capture a month of growth. The sample was then weighed in order to find the concentration of mercury, then processed through thermal decomposition (no chemicals were used). After the hair was dried and then decomposed, a gold amalgamator trapped the mercury vapors. (Mercury binds to gold--hence why some modern, small-scale miners still use mercury to separate gold from ore, further contributing to mercury pollution. Historic California gold mines are notorious for contamination.)

Liguori has received hundreds of hair samples from all over the world. A few days ago, the Marine Extension Service compiled the information on an interactive map, which is still a work in progress as more data comes in.

Mercury hair-test map for Los Angeles. (Note: dots are randomly placed around the city as a representation.)
Mercury hair-test map for Los Angeles. (Note: dots are randomly placed around the city as a representation.)

With a brief eyeball, it looked as if about one in ten people weren't as lucky as I; they received a scary red dot.

"One of the woman who was tested at the Sierra Club's recent event in Los Angeles had roughly 5.5 times [6.7ppm] the level of mercury in her body that the EPA says is safe," said David Graham-Caso, Deputy Press Secretary for the Sierra Club. "It demonstrates coal pollution is an LA problem, even without coal plants in our backyard."

According to a 2009 Physicians Responsibility Report, coal's pollution contributes to 4 out of 5 of the leading causes of death in the U.S. This includes heart problems, respiratory disease, stroke and Cancer. "The goal is to power our economy in a way that doesn't kill people," Graham-Caso said.

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Industry enthusiasts contend new, "clean coal" technology can capture and store carbon pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants. Graham-Caso thinks this is malarkey. "Clean coal is an oxymoron," he said bluntly. "In addition to being made up of toxic elements, coal itself is primarily carbon. It's inherently dirty and dangerous."

Linking coal and mercury to seafood is ringing some alarms. Members of the fishing industry are reacting to the test, some with great interest and some fearing public misunderstanding and backlash.

Liguori emphasized that mercury levels can be quickly reduced to the green zone with education, even among fishermen themselves. "We had a three hour workshop for shrimpers and their families because I really want the fisherman to be experts, to really understand the toxicology." Shrimp, for example, are so low in mercury they can be eaten daily.

"There are so many confusing and contradictory messages out there," Liguori later wrote to me in an email. "For women of childbearing age, balancing the wonderful benefits of seafood consumption with the possible risks of contaminants like mercury can literally feel like splitting hairs."

I know what she means.

For more information, both Perdue University and the Sierra Club created clear, printable wallet cards with a list of commonly eaten fish and their mercury levels. If you would like to get your hair tested for mercury, The Sierra Club provides a PDF to an application for only $20.00.

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