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Mercury Rising
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Industrial Mercury Is Falling Out Of The Sky

By James Donahue

Toxic levels of mercury are now being found in the rain and snow that fall out of our skies, scientists warn. It is affecting the health of all living creatures.

The National Wildlife Federation reported in 2003 that rain falling in over 12 eastern states was found to contain mercury levels that exceed federal safe standards for people an animals. The states named in that year's report included Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. The problem may be even more severe now.

The mercury contamination is found primarily in one major food source . . . fish. Much of it was noticed first in fresh water species, but more recently the high mercury contamination also is being found in certain sea foods, expecially the shell fish and tuna.

It is believed that the biggest polluter is coal-fired power plants that now pepper the planet. Another major mercury polluter that few people think about are municipal medical waste incinerators that also spew mercury into the air. These two sources are said to account for 85 percent of all mercury pollution in the air.

How severe is the threat to human health?

In America one-in-six children born each year have been found exposed to mercury levels high enough to put them at risk for learning disabilities, motor skill impairment and short-term memory loss. That is because mercury attacks the brain. If it is happening in the United States, you can be sure similar mercury exposures are present in newborn babies all over the world.

The Centers for Disease Control an Prevention says that one in 12 women of childbearing age is shown to have blood mercury levels that exceed the federal safe level for protection of the fetus. And this translates into about 320,000 babies born each year in the U.S. that are at risk.

Mercury also inhibits reproduction among wildlife. Hardest hit are not only fresh water fish but birds an animals that feed on fish. Health officials in 44 states have issued warnings for people to restrict or entirely avoid eating fish caught in thousands of inland lakes and streams.

One major impact on public health has been the tuna industry, which remains among the most popular foods on grocery store shelves. The FDA in 2000 issued an advisory warning women not to eat a lot of canned tuna during pregnancy because of the high levels of mercury found in it.. A joint advisory on this topic was issued in 2004 by both the FDA and the EPA.

The State of California considers this problem so serious, in 2003 the state Attorney General's office filed suit to force supermarkets, restaurants and tuna companies to warn customers that tuna, swordfish and shark sold in their markets contain mercury.

Just how dangerous is the mercury in our food chain?

One of the most dramatic effects was seen in fishermen and their families in Japanese villages on Minamata Bay during the 1950s. There, the Japanese people have a diet that is primary of seafood. But they were showing signs of brain damage and some people were fatally stricken with disease and seizures. Investigation revealed the locally caught fish showing high levels of methylmercury from a local chemical plant that was discharging organic mercury directly into the bay. The mercury was being absorbed by the fish and then consumed by the people.

All of this is just one more case against the continued burning of carbon fuels, especially coal, to meet the growing energy demands of an overpopulated world.

--December 2006