Maryland Tolerates Higher Levels of Mercury in Fish

by Alex Roehrs
       According to a new survey by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG), the permissible levels of mercury contamination of fish in Maryland’s waterways could be a health danger to the public, especially to women of childbearing age, pregnant women and children. The survey found that Maryland currently allows levels of mercury in fish that are higher than permitted in 27 other states.
       At a press conference on April 20, MaryPIRG representatives were joined in their announcement of survey findings by Kim Coble, senior scientist in the Maryland office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Richard Humphrey, M.D. of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
       Although controversy exists over how much mercury constitutes a health risk, studies have found that children of mothers who eat fish with high mercury levels, or who eat more than average amounts of fish while pregnant, are more likely to suffer from neurological and developmental disorders. Birth defects, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy have all been linked to exposire to mercury.
       Dr. Humphrey explained, “Mercury bioaccumulates in animal tissue and moves up the food chain in increasingly greater quantities. It can cross the placental barrier of expectant mothers.”
       The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the average American consumes eight ounces of fish per month, but it advises states to study their own fish consumption patterns and set standards accordingly.
       Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE) has never conducted such a study. Instead, it uses the EPA’s estimate, which MaryPIRG and others believe is unrealistic. They point out that Delaware did its own study in 1994 and found the average adult fish consumer eats 19 ounces of fish monthly. As a result of that study, Delaware has set a much more stringent standard for traces of mercury in fish.

Maryland Has No Lower Threshold for Children

       While the MDE does not issue health advisories until mercury contamination in fish reaches one part per million (ppm), Delaware’s permissible standard is much lower: 0.216 ppm for adults (less than a fourth of Maryland’s), and it has established an even lower level--0.12 ppm--for children. Unlike Delaware, Maryland has set no lower threshold for children, even though they are more vulnerable to mercury poisoning than adults.
       Using fish tissue samples collected by the MDE between 1985 and 1997, MaryPIRG asserts that--if the MDE had used Delaware’s standards for children instead of its own--it would have had to issue 62 fish consumption advisories to alert the public of danger. Instead, because permissible mercury levels in Maryland are much higher, the MDE has never issued a warning advisory about mercury levels in fish.
       MDE officials dispute MaryPIRG’s findings, saying the results are “taken out of context,” according to MDE’s Kevin Novogravac, as quoted in The Sun on April 21.

Governor’s Promise Unfulfilled

       Each year Maryland industries expel more than 4,500 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere, primarily from power plants (39%), municipal waste incinerators (32%), medical waste incinerators (23%) and cement plants (5%). By the time humans consume fish, the mercury has been concentrated through the food chain to a level about 10,000 times greater than when it was first released into the atmosphere.
       In a prepared statement to the press, Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, pointed out, “The Governor made mercury reduction a priority in the Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1994. The levels of mercury found in fish caught in the Bay show us we have a long way to go. Industries should work to reduce and eventually eliminate mercury emissions into our environment.”
       MaryPIRG has called on the MDE to adopt Delaware’s mercury standards until it can conduct a fish consumption study of its own and to educate the public about risks associated with eating contaminated fish. It also calls on the MDE to work with industry to eliminate mercury emissions.
       Said Kim Erickson, MaryPIRG’s toxics campaign coordinator, “Until we take steps to eliminate mercury emissions, Marylanders will be at risk. At a minimum, we have the right to know when we’re exposed.”
       For more information or a brochure, call Kim Erickson at (410)467-0439.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on May 3, 2000.