I cut my hair for coal

Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET
Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET

Getting a chunk of hair snipped off for mercury testing isn't a typical activity for a late Thursday morning. However, a number of us eco-conscious, health-curious Angelinos gathered at the quaint Primrose Organics Salon and Boutique on Hollywood Boulevard for the Sierra Club-sponsored activity.

It wasn't just personal curiosity that led us there.

The event was a part of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. There were more than 25 similar hair testing events organized around the nation, according to David Graham-Caso, Associate Press Secretary.

Mercury levels are linked to coal use. If you ever doubted the link between humanity and the planet, consider this: power plants burn dirty coal, which releases mercury into the atmosphere. When it rains, mercury seeps its way into our oceans and streams where fish become steeped in it. When we sit down for a scrumptious meal of seafood, we put mercury into our bodies, affecting our health and, notably, the development of our children in utero.

Mercury levels can be tested in blood, nails and hair.

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A few women stood among the boutique salon items at Primrose, awaiting their turn in the hair chair in an adjacent room (Some women arrived for regular hair-cut appointments). Upon entering, I was instructed to sign in and fill out a short questionnaire. How frequently do I eat fish? What is my age bracket? Am I a man or a woman? Would I fill out a petition to stop coal-fired power plants?

Coal-fired power plants are a bit out of sight, out of mind for most Los Angeles residents. According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), we receive 44% of our power from coal, but the plants are located out of state. The Sierra Club is trying to show that the pollution still affects us, no matter where we are. "Our goal was to highlight even though we may not see...power plants, we still do suffer from the damage," said Graham-Caso.

Previous tests conducted by the Sierra Club in conjunction with Environmental Quality Institute showed mercury levels exceeded the EPA's recommended limit in one-in-five women of childbearing age.

My name was finally called.

Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET
Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET

I was ushered to a chair where I was told they needed a hair sample of thirty strands! I looked in the mirror and made a concerned face. Don't worry, the cutter assured me, we'll take it from somewhere you won't notice. She pinned up my hair, scissored off a small sample bundle and taped it to my questionnaire.

I imagined my hair being put into a murky test tube, a faint sizzling sound and strange waft filling the air. Would the hair turn green from mercury poisoning?

I was slightly disappointed to learn that I would get the results of my mercury hair test in about a month. (And turning green probably has nothing to do with it.) My snipped strands had to be shipped along with the other samples to an academic laboratory at the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service in Brunswick, GA, for processing.

So, I wait with anticipation. Meanwhile, when I feel the hidden, prickly remnants on the back of my head, I am oddly reminded of coal. No matter what my results are, I suppose that made the campaign event effective.

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