NEWS- Fishy results: Hg levels high here

Back in mid-November, the Sierra Club partnered with UVA student groups and a Charlottesville hair salon to screen women for concentrations of mercury, the toxic heavy metal associated with a host of problems, including birth defects.

The results are in, and the Virginia figures are not encouraging. According to the Sierra Club, the ratio of tested women carrying enough mercury to harm a baby is one in four.

"That's much higher than the EPA estimate," says Joshua Low, an activist with the Club's Richmond chapter, noting that the EPA expected only one in six to be contaminated.

Low planned to hold a press conference announcing the findings Wednesday, February 8.

One key fact the Sierra Club concedes is that the women taking the free test were "self-selected," so claims that the results carry any statistical weight would be questionable.

However, for the women involved, the results might prove very useful. One 54-year-old tested November 17 at Arlington Hair Studio tested 2.5 times the EPA's threshold for baby safety. Good thing she's not of child-bearing age.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that mercury can pass through the blood to a fetus to cause brain damage, mental retardation, lack of coordination, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. While the CDC stops short of blaming autism on mercury, a link many parents allege, the health group notes that children poisoned by mercury in breast milk can develop nervous and digestive system problems as well as kidney damage.

Another Charlottesville woman, identified only as 21-year-old, tested at 84 percent of the danger level. Overall, only four Charlottesville women– 10 percent of the subjects– tested above the EPA safety level, and all of them were over prime child-bearing ages.

Still, in a town with UVA's heating plant spewing about 120 pound of mercury annually in the middle of a shopping and residential district, a focus on the potentially lethal substance can cause quite a turnout. Forty women took the test here.

"We didn't turn anybody away," says Low, "but we used more tests than we budgeted for."

The state's Department of Environmental Quality isn't commenting on the tests, but it is carefully watching what's happening in the General Assembly.

On February 3, in a vote widely seen as a victory for industry, a Senate subcommittee endorsed a bill to match federal regulations by cutting coal-fired emissions by the year 2015. The State Air Pollution Control Board had sought a more stringent set of standards that would have sped up the compliance timetable by two years and forbidden Virginia's 16 largest coal-burning electric plants from buying interstate pollution permits to meet the emissions standard.

A free-market idea hatched by economists over 20 years ago, the permits would provide incentives to self-regulate. Critics contend that pockets of pollution would remain.

Such pockets can cause havoc. Researchers say that mercury in the air settles to the bottom of waterways. As it is consumed by fungi and bacteria, it gets in– and stays in– the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation. Concentrations of toxic metal increase as it climbs the chain of progressively larger fish and other predatory animals. People who eat a lot of fish are seen to be at greatest risk of exposure.

"Our main concern is to reduce mercury," says DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. "We look at it clearly as a toxic chemical. We've been doing more testing around the state in streams and lakes and fish, and we're finding more of it."

Low says the Sierra Club plans to continue its anti-mercury efforts by pressuring Governor Tim Kaine to sign a tougher bill.

Brooke Nell takes a sample of Kerri Vernon's hair at Arlington Hair Studio.