Mercury contamination, mainly from coal plant emissions, pervasive in fish nationwide, USGS finds

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Contamination by mercury, a neurotoxin, was detected in EVERY FISH sampled in 291 streams across the country in a study released today by the U.S. Geological Survey. A quarter of the fish were found to contain mercury above EPA’s safe level for human consumption. The main source to watersheds is mercury emitted to the atmosphere and deposited by precipitation. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States – in addition, of course, to being the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

See our June 26 post: Jim Hansen’s statements at Coal River Mountain protest against mountaintop removal

“We must have a moratorium on new coal plants and phase out existing ones within the next 20 years.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen said.

From Department of the Interior news release, August 19:

Study Reveals Mercury Contamination in Fish Nationwide

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Scientists detected mercury contamination in every fish sampled in 291 streams across the country, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study released today.

About a quarter of these fish were found to contain mercury at levels exceeding the criterion for the protection of people who consume average amounts of fish, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the U.S. EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals.

“This study shows just how widespread mercury pollution has become in our air, watersheds, and many of our fish in freshwater streams,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “This science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation’s waterways, and protect the public from potential health dangers.”… 

Mercury, a neurotoxin, is one of the most serious contaminants threatening our nation’s waters. The main source of mercury to natural waters is mercury that is emitted to the atmosphere and deposited onto watersheds by precipitation….[C]oal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States….

Greenwire (by subscription) reported on August 19 (“MERCURY: USGS finds widespread freshwater contamination”) that a seafood trade association spokesman “emphasized that the study does not address commerical fish, which mostly come from the oceans or aquaculture.”  Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute said the study should not have consumers “in any way concerned about the commerical fish they regularly enjoy.”

But the study’s lead scientist said, in an interview with Bloomberg:

Methlymercury is a neurotoxin, damaging the nerve systems of people and animals as it accumulates in the vital organs. It can cause severe birth defects, learning disabilities, memory loss and mental impairment, said Barbara Scudder, a hydrologist and the study’s lead scientist. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to passing mercury poisoning along to their unborn children.

“Very small amounts of methylmercury can accumulate in organisms, and as they are eaten by other organisms it bio- magnifies up the food chain,” Scudder said in a telephone interview from the USGS’s Wisconsin Water Science Center in Middleton. She warned consumers to avoid predatory fish, including large-mouth bass, pickerel, walleye and catfish….

As of 2006, the latest year for which data are available, 48 of the 50 U.S. states [all except Alaska and Wyoming] had warned their residents that fish caught locally may contain hazardous levels of mercury, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“All of our streams are potentially affected by mercury from the atmosphere,” Scudder said.

National listing of fish advisories from the Environmental Protection Agency

There is no adequate regulation of mercury by the Environmental Protection Agency, and 8 years were squandered under the Bush administration.  From the Associated Press (“New gov’t study shows mercury in fish widespread”):

Earlier this year, the Obama administration said it would begin crafting a new regulation to control mercury emissions from power plants after a federal appeals court threw out plans drafted by the Bush administration and favored by industry. The Bush rule would have allowed power plants to buy and sell pollution credits, instead of requiring each plant to install equipment to reduce mercury pollution.

The EPA also has proposed a new regulation to clamp down on emissions of mercury from cement plants.

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