Toddlers Could Be Tested For Mercury
From: Robina Suwol
Date: 25 Jul 2003
Remote Name: 126.96.36.199
Toddlers could be tested for mercury - States seek grants to address threat
posed by toxic metal found in fish -
BRUCE HENDERSON -Staff Writer
ON THE WACCAMAW RIVER - After more than a decade of measuring mercury in fish,
water and air, Carolinas officials will seek grants this week to test a final
Thousands of people on the coastal plain, where mercury most commonly takes a
toxic form, would be tested if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
approves the grants. Many in Piedmont counties east of Charlotte would be
Even without a CDC grant, South Carolina hopes to forge ahead with plans to
test 12,000 toddlers, who are at special risk.
In North Carolina, a state toxicologist estimates 7,400 children born > each
year are already at risk from mercury. In its most toxic form, it can cause
neurological damage to developing fetuses and harm the way children think,
learn and problem-solve.
A naturally occurring metal, mercury also blows out of industrial smokestacks,
mostly coal-fired power plants and incinerators. Released into the air,
mercury falls back to earth in rain. A national study released last month
indicated average concentrations of mercury in rainfall in the Carolinas were
at least twice as high as the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe in
The chemistry of the Carolinas' blackwater rivers on the coastal plain
transforms mercury into a highly toxic form. Called methylmercury, it works
its way up the food chain from tiny organisms to the largest fish. People are
most often exposed to it by eating contaminated fish.
Most previous estimates of mercury's health impact in the Carolinas have been
projected from concentrations measured in fish and water. Testing people is a
"Blood doesn't lie," said Karen Brazzell of the S.C. Department of Health and
Environmental Control's biomonitoring unit.
Each year the Carolinas update advisories on what fish species and waterways
to avoid. The growing list now covers the half of North Carolina south and
east of Interstate 85, and 53 rivers and lakes in South Carolina. Because of
the potential damage to developing babies, pregnant women are especially
cautioned not to eat fish known to be high in mercury.
But some officials worry the warning isn't reaching the people who most need
Many of the coastal plain's poor rely on fish for a substantial part of their
diet. They may also be less likely to read newspapers, brochures or Web sites
where mercury information is posted.
Neither state budgets money for public outreach. North Carolina sends fact
sheets to doctors, clinics and health departments, but hasn't spent the
$42,000 it would cost to print and mail posters and brochures -- information
women could take home and post on the refrigerator.
South Carolina mails 30,000 to 40,000 information booklets a year. "We do the
best we can within the scope of no resources," said Tracy Shelley, a state
Mercury news misses many The Waccamaw River flows between the two states, a
tea-brown syrup oozing downstream from Lake Waccamaw in southeastern North
Carolina to Winyah Bay at Georgetown, S.C.Tests of people who live along the
portion of the river, in 1993, found 10 times more mercury in frequent fish
eaters. Some concentrations were among the highest in the nation.
Despite fish-consumption advisories out for several years, mercury is still
news to some local people.
"I haven't heard anything about that, and I've been here nearly two years,"
said Myra Ward, who owns a bait-and-tackle store near the Waccamaw. "I see a
truck come here and test the water ever so often, but they haven't said
anything to me about it."
North Carolina advises limiting consumption of three freshwater
predators -- largemouth bass, blackfish and chain pickerel. State advisories
also include the saltwater species shark, swordfish, tilefish and king
Michael Best, 40, who regularly fishes the Waccamaw, knows about
mercury -- he believes he has seen it in largemouth bass and bream. It looks
like pockets of the silvery liquid in oral thermometers, Best said.
Biologists say mercury isn't visible in fish. Best said he cleans out the
mystery substance and eats the fish. "It ain't never bothered me yet," he
Interest in mercury is growing in Washington, Raleigh and Columbia.
North Carolina's Clean Smokestacks Act, enacted last summer, is
expected to reduce mercury emissions by 55 percent by 2013 as power plants
install pollution controls for ozone and haze-forming chemicals.
The Bush administration says its Clear Skies Initiative would, by 2010, reduce
mercury in Carolinas rainfall by up to 25 percent. N.C. power plant emissions
would drop 56 percent and S.C. emissions 64 percent by 2020.
The Natural Resources Defense Council -- an advocacy group critical of Bush's
proposal -- estimates the Bush proposal would let power plants release five
times as much mercury for a decade longer than the Clean Air Act now does.
Scientists, meanwhile, aren't able to say how much of the contamination in
water and fish comes from industry.
"The big question is what concentration coming out of a smokestack is going to
equal what concentration in a bass that you're going to pull out of a lake and
eat?" said Todd Crawford of the N.C. Division of Air Quality. "There's so much
that happens between that smokestack and that fish that it's a daunting
The state has measured mercury in rain at two spots in Eastern North Carolina,
Lake Waccamaw and Pettigrew state parks, since 1996 without drawing a clear
picture of whether more or less mercury is falling.
S.C. fish consumption advisories rose rapidly in the early l990s as state
officials expanded their tests of fish and waterways, said Butch Younginer,
aquatic biology manager for the S.C. Bureau of Water.
"In the last three years the numbers and intensity of mercury in fish have
pretty well leveled off," he said.
The N.C. air-quality division is also studying the amount of mercury in
An Environmental Protection Agency study, based on computer modeling,
predicted in 1996 that Mecklenburg County would be in the top 5 percent of
counties nationally. Air samples, to be collected through fall, will tell
whether the EPA estimate was accurate.
Even at high levels, Crawford said, it's doubtful airborne mercury -- in a
different form than methylmercury -- would be harmful.
An ongoing study of fish, water and sediment in 13 sites across Eastern North
Carolina has found levels of methylmercury similar to those in other parts of
the Southeast, said Michelle Woolfolk of the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Southeastern levels tend to be higher than in the rest of the nation.
Using analytical equipment that can detect mercury at levels 1/400th that of
previous methods, the study will let researchers use water samples to estimate
more accurately the levels of methylmercury in fish.
In September, the CDC plans to award $5 million in grants to states that want
to begin testing humans for environmental contaminants. Future funding will
allow some of the projects to last nearly five years.North Carolina would use
its grant to test for mercury in blood, urine, hair and toenails in
fish-eaters from 14 counties, ranging from Union, Cabarrus, Stanly and Anson
eastward to Brunswick and Columbus in the state's southeastern corner. One
hundred people from each
county would initially be tested, but state officials say the number could
eventually expand to as many as 18,000 over 20 years.
Starting in March, South Carolina would test blood samples for
methylmercury from 1-year-olds in 23 counties. Children of that age are
already tested for lead.
The state has partnered with the Medical University of South Carolina, which
is studying the prevalence of autism and developmental disabilities in coastal
and Pee Dee counties. Researchers want to learn whether there is a link to the
prevalence of mercury, and whether developmental problems crop up at certain
Scientists are increasingly concerned about environmental contaminants, said
Dr. Jane Charles, a developmental pediatrician at MUSC who studies autism and
"If you have a whole county full of children whose IQs are a few points lower
than you would normally expect, what kind of effect does that have on the
state?" she said.
Mercury on the Web For fish-consumption advisories, visit the N.C. Department
of Health and Human Services:
index.html or the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control:
For more on mercury, see the EPA's site:
Bruce Henderson: (704)358-5051;
Last changed: March 14, 2006