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American anglers warned to watch out for mercury

By J.R. Pegg

5th June 2003 (ENS)

Mercury contamination is at crisis levels in an increasing number of U.S. lakes and rivers, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) warned today. In a new report PIRG says there are currently 43 states with advisories in effect for mercury-contaminated fish, an increase of some 60 percent over the past decade.

Nineteen states have issued statewide advisories, which urge people to avoid or limit consumption of fish due to high levels of mercury, for all of their inland freshwater lakes and/or rivers for at least one species of fish.

The report, "Fishing for Trouble," finds that eleven states have issued statewide advisories for their entire coastal areas for at least one species of fish.

"We have known for years that mercury poses a serious threat to public health and recreational fishing, but this report shows just how widespread the problem really is," said U.S. PIRG Staff Attorney Zach Corrigan.

The group reports that 30 percent of U.S. lakes and 13 percent of rivers were under active mercury advisories in 2002, up 19 percent for lakes compared to 2001, and nine percent for rivers. The advisories vary by state and are for a broad range of fish, including bass, yellow perch, lake trout, walleye, pike as well as some salt water species such as tuna and swordfish.

PIRG timed the release of its report to coincide with National Fishing
and Boating Week, as the organization believes recreational fishers
in particular need to be aware of the concerns about mercury

PIRG says recreational fishers need to pay close
attention to mercury advisories.

(Photo by George Gentry courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The economic health of the $30 billion recreational fishing industry
- and the health of part time anglers - is at stake, according to PIRG's report.

The report finds that nine of the 19 states with mercury warnings covering all of their inland lakes or rivers are also among the top twenty states for expenditures on recreational fishing.

Five of the top ten states with the most lake acres under mercury advisory - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Texas - are also in the top ten for the amount of money spent towards recreational fishing. And two of the ten states with the largest number of river miles under advisory, Florida and Ohio, are also in the top ten for spending on fishing.

"We think the health advisories are responsible and that people should know about them," Michael Doebley, deputy director of governmental affairs for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, told ENS.

"Most recreational anglers are aware of those advisories and will choose what to eat and what not to eat accordingly," said Doebley, who does not believe the advisories present a serious economic risk to the recreational fishing industry in and of themselves, unless they are used to promote limiting anglers access to waters.

The federal government does not issue mercury health warnings, leaving states to tackle the issue. The primary health risk from the toxic metal emerges when airborne mercury falls into surface waters where it can accumulate in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water transform mercury into methylmercury, which fish absorb when they eat aquatic organisms and humans absorb when they eat fish.

Scientists have shown that methylmercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says some eight percent of U.S. women childbearing age has unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies.

PIRG's report contains heavy criticism of the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" initiative, which it believes relaxes the existing law to cut mercury emissions.

Tightening emissions standards for coal-fired power plants is the key to reducing mercury emissions.

Coal-fired plants are the nation's largest source
of mercury emissions, spewing out some
50 tons of the toxic metal each year. Current
emissions of mercury add to the existing pool,
which is continuously mobilized, deposited on
land and water, and remobilized.

But coal-fired plants are exempt from clean air
standards - the other two large sources of
mercury, which are medical and municipal
waste incinerators, are tightly regulated and
emissions have been reduced by more than 90
percent since 1990.

(Photo courtesy New Mexico Solar Energy Association)

But under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is mandated to issue "maximum achievable control technology" standards for coal-fired power plants, with compliance by the end of 2007.
In December 2001, the EPA said these standards could reduce mercury emissions from power plants by some 90 percent, reducing the total to some five tons by 2007.

The administration says its air pollution plan would reduce mercury emissions more efficiently, by installing a cap of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018.

Bush administration officials, and the coal fired power plant industry, believe that the technology to cut mercury emissions is unproven and too expensive to be forced upon the industry at this time.

Environmentalists and some in Congress do not buy this position and insist that Clear Skies does nothing but roll back existing law and allow more mercury in the air, for longer.

"The Bush administration needs to clean up the oldest and dirtiest power plants that are spewing this mercury - not let them off the hook," said Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air.

The law is waiting to be enforced, added PIRG's Corrigan, and the "epidemic of mercury fish warnings should tell us that we are at a crossroads."

Click here to download the PIRG report - “Fishing for trouble” (pdf - 814KB)