Majority of Fish Caught in Md. Contain Dangerous Levels of Mercury, Study Finds

SOURCE: Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG)
Exposure to mercury has been shown to cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, lowered IQ, and attention deficits in children and heart attacks and other problems in adults.
At a press conference at Middle Branch Park on April 13, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) Foundation released a report finding that 59% of fish caught and tested by state agencies contained unsafe levels of mercury.

Nearly one in ten fish, including striped bass (called "rockfish" locally), contained concentrations of 300 parts per billion (ppb) or greater, ten times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration recommended limit. This level of contamination, the report asserts, warrants a species-specific fish consumption advisory.

The report, "Mercury Pollution in Maryland: A Comprehensive Look at Contamination in Local Waterways," inspected data from nearly 2,000 fish during a study that marks the first time multiple databases from different state agencies have been combined to get a more complete picture of mercury contamination across the state.

“This report documents in detail the extent of the mercury problem in our state,” said Chris Fick, policy associate with MaryPIRG, in a prepared statement to the press. “Lawmakers need to take every step possible to reduce mercury pollution so that Marylanders can safely eat the fish caught in our waterways.”

Exposure to mercury has been shown to cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, lowered IQ, and attention deficits in children and heart attacks and other problems in adults.

"Mercury is particularly toxic to the developing brain of children," said Katie Huffling, a nurse with the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in the same press statement. "Too many parents are at risk of having children detrimentally affected by mercury contamination. The fact that 59% of fish are contaminated is appalling."

Environmental and public health advocates called on the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), a regional body of thirteen states from Virginia to Maine plus the District of Columbia, to include significant mercury reductions in their proposals to reduce air pollution. Early drafts of the policy included mercury, but states are wavering on whether to include it in the final proposal. Advocates agree that mercury is essential to the plan, and say the Maryland Healthy Air Act, which will reduce pollution from power plants by 90% by 2013, could be a model rule to adopt.

The Healthy Air Act, which has been signed by Governor Robert Ehrlich, is intended to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Supporters argue that the utility industry has long advocated a nationwide approach, and that a large regional approach would be a step in the right direction.

“We need neighboring states to reduce their mercury emissions by 90%,” said Erin Fitzsimmons, Chesapeake Regional Coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance to the press. “A consistent standard from Maine to Virginia is best. We won’t rid our waters of mercury without regional reductions.”

While much of Maryland’s mercury pollution comes from local sources, experts agree that a significant amount of mercury blows into Maryland from out of state. Reducing the mercury regionally will be an essential step toward furthering reductions on a wider scale.

“We’ve passed a great law here in Maryland,” said Fick. “There is no reason why the Maryland Department of the Environment shouldn’t be pushing this as an ideal rule for regional adoption.”

Maryland legislators wrapped up their annual session on April 10. They failed to pass a bill that would have provided financial incentives for recycling mercury from automobile switches. Automakers use mercury in switches for convenience lighting, anti-lock brake systems and other control systems, even though mercury-free alternatives exist. The mercury is released when vehicles are dismantled for scrap and component recycling, which can include crushing and remelting of steel. If mercury is not removed prior to dismantling and processing, it can be released into soils and waterways from crushing or into the air when steel is processed for recycling. The bill that was before lawmakers, HB 1597, provided a $3 reclamation fee for recyclers, to be paid for by manufacturers who would have also financed the costs for mercury storage, handling, transportation and recycling. Similar programs in other states have reported a 90% reclamation rate. Voluntary programs in other states have not proven as effective.

In addition to passing the Healthy Air Act, lawmakers also banned the sale and manufacture of mercury thermostats.

“These are important steps that we applaud,” said Fick, “But completely eliminating mercury from the environment is a realistic and necessary goal, and we can’t stop until that happens.”

MaryPIRG comprises a staff of attorneys, scientists, and other professionals. For 30 years, it has advocated on the public’s behalf on issues concerning environmental protection, consumer rights, and the democratic process. For information, call (410) 467-0439 or visit marypirg.org.

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This story was published on April 14, 2006.