Report claims mercury contamination standards ‘inconsistent.’

The standards by which US state governments assess mercury contamination in fish are inconsistent, and in some states, non-existent, according to a report published by the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG).

The report, Fishing for Trouble, provides a state-by-state analysis of mercury fish consumption advisory systems, and claims that a loophole in the 1986 Community Right to Know Act, the US’ toxic chemical reporting law, allows the majority of mercury pollution to go unreported to the public.

Mercury levels in the environment have risen 1.5percent per year since 1970, largely due to pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants and waste incinerators. The US EPA estimates that the 1300 coal and oil-fired power plants across the US emit 50 tons of mercury per year, yet 1/70th of a teaspoon per year is enough to contaminate an entire lake to the point that fish are unsafe to eat.

Testing has shown that the average can of tuna contains levels of mercury exceeding levels considered ‘safe’ by the EPA – and as little as one meal of highly mercury-contaminated fish eaten by an expectant mother can cause brain damage to a foetus.

Because of mercury contamination in fish, federal agencies have issued policy guidance and state governments have begun issuing ‘fish consumption advisories,’ warning people to either restrict their consumption of fish, or in some cases, to eat no fish at all.

Fishing for Trouble found that 40 states have issued one or more health advisories because of mercury in fish. Ten of those states have issued advisories for every lake and river within the state’s borders.

Other findings of the report were:

  Twelve states conduct none or very limited monitoring of their waterways for mercury-contaminated fish.

  Fifteen states issue mercury advisories based on levels that are likely to be inadequate for protecting public health.

  The states ranking the lowest for protecting sensitive populations include: Wyoming, Kansas, Alaska, Maryland, South Dakota, Mississippi, Kentucky, Hawaii, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Virginia, and Iowa.

  The states with the strongest advisory systems for protecting sensitive populations, like children and women of child-bearing age, include: Delaware, Minnesota, New York, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, and North Dakota.

US PIRG, Mercury Policy Project, and California Communities Against Toxics are calling for the following steps to protect the public and to reduce mercury pollution in the environment:

  Federal and state governments should create a system for monitoring mercury contamination, as well as a system for warning the public about the risks of mercury exposure.

  Advisories should be issued whenever mercury contamination in fish reaches levels that could adversely affect any portion of the population. In particular, pregnant women, women of child-bearing age who could become pregnant, and children under 15 years old should be advised to avoid consuming fish when there are detectable levels of mercury. States should establish consumer outreach programmes targeting those most at risk.

  The EPA and Congress should strengthen the proposed Right to Know expansion to include complete information on mercury pollution.

  The EPA should set a zero threshold for reporting of persistent or bioaccumulative toxins like mercury.

  The Clinton Administration and Congress should take direct steps to reduce and eliminate mercury pollution into the environment and should set strict mercury emissions standards from coal and oil-fired power plants.

  Current emissions standards for existing medical and municipal waste incinerators should be strengthened. In addition, all mercury-containing products should be removed from incinerator feedstock, all products which contain mercury unnecessarily should be phased out, hazardous waste incinerators should no longer be encouraged or allowed to burn mercury-bearing waste, and no new development of incinerators should be allowed.

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