Quick sliver: Hair snips reveal mercury

Is the sky falling? With the growing health concerns over airborne mercury in the food chain, two groups are getting together to give Charlottesville women a way to discover if their bodies are tainted by the potentially toxic heavy metal.

On Thursday, November 17, the Virginia Sierra Club and UVA's Student Environmental Action are offering free mercury hair testing at a local hair salon.

The groups point out that mercury can cause a variety of medical ills and that women who eat a lot of fish could be at particular risk– along with their unborn and newborn children.

Mercury awareness is particularly high in Charlottesville. For starters, the town is home to UVA's aging coal-fired heating plant that spews as much as 120 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

Charlottesville is also home to Coy Barefoot, the leader of a national advocacy group, Dads Against Mercury, that identifies mercury as the most likely cause of a devastating developmental disorder.

Barefoot is among thousands of Americans who believe that that disorder, autism, has risen and fallen with the quantity of mercury in vaccines and in the environment. While proof of that link is tenuous, a study of Texas school districts released in March found that every thousand pounds of mercury put into the air caused a 17 percent rise in autism. In the past five years, American pharmaceutical companies have voluntarily eliminated mercury preservatives from most of their vaccines.

Proven dangers of mercury in the body include irreversible kidney damage, tremors, and respiratory failure. Worse, 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 stop short of attributing autism to mercury, the health group does note that children poisoned by mercury in breast milk can develop nervous and digestive system problems, as well as kidney damage.

Amid it all, UVA's aging coal-fired heating plant continues to spew. But help is on the way.

According to UVA's environmental compliance officer Jeff Sitler, two of the older boilers are being replaced any day now. As soon as testing of two new oil- and gas-burning boilers is complete this heating season, the 1950s-era coal-burner as well as an antiquated oil burner will be retired.

"They are making progress," says Sharon Foley, an air-permit manager for the Department of Environmental Quality. According to Foley, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted tougher mercury standards in September 2004, and UVA has invested millions to keep up with the regulations.

UVA's Sitler notes that the new $35 million boilers, plus new emissions scrubbers, will significantly reduce the mercury and other particulates. While one particular release from UVA's coal-burning plant fouled streets and sidewalks with an unpleasant black film during a 2003 malfunction, there were no fines for that glitch. Sitler says that day-to-day burning of coal for electricity may be the larger hazard, because it puts mercury into the human food chain via waterways– and fish.

"We're probably getting more mercury here from coal plants west of us," Sitler says.

The free testing happens between 10 and 11:30am at Arlington Hair Studio at 1924-C Arlington Boulevard, with up to 30 kits available. Tested women will have a lock of hair removed near the scalp– "We won't let 'em go out the door with a four-year-old's haircut," promises manager Renee Wyant.

Organizers say tested women will get their results within three weeks.

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