Over the past two months, the Sierra Club has conducted tests in more than 30 cities across the United States to help concerned moms and others find out how much toxic mercury is in their bodies. The Sierra Club’s nationwide hair testing program aims to raise awareness of the dangers of mercury, a potent neurotoxin which coal-fired power plants emit into the air, falling into our waterways as rain or snow, then building up in fish and the people that consume fish. Mercury is excreted through hair, so a hair sample is a way to show the amount of mercury that has been in a person’s body over a few months.
Toxic mercury is especially dangerous to the health of young women, children and developing fetuses, and even small amounts of mercury exposure has been linked to developmental disorders and learning disabilities. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at least 1 in 12 – and as many as 1 in 6 – American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to put their baby at risk.
“As a mom, mercury pollution is truly scary,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and mother of a young daughter. “We need to stop Big Coal from dumping mercury and other toxic air pollution into our air and water.”
Sierra Club mercury hair testing events have been held in salons, public squares, and college campuses in more than 18 states, including PA, KY, MI, NH, OK, WV, PA, TX, NJ, MT, WI, NV, MN, CA, VA, IN, MA, AK. Event highlights include:
- A large mercury hair testing event organized by Sierra Club members and the local “Stop Titan” coalition in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, near the site of a proposed cement plant that could increase toxic mercury pollution in the community.
- A Sierra Club partnership event with the Moapa band of Pahuites, a Native American tribal community in Nevada whose population does not eat lots of fish, but lives within mile of the dirty Reid Gardner coal plant.
- College student-led mercury hair testing events at the University of Oklahoma, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.
While the Sierra Club mercury tests are still being processed by the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service laboratory in Brunswick, GA, initial confidential results show that a substantial number of test participants have mercury levels above the threshold the EPA considers safe.
“It’s very disturbing to find out my mercury levels are high,” said Jenn Burdette, a mother of two who had her hair tested in Wrightsville Beach. “I am conscientious about my seafood consumption, and it makes me wonder where else I’m being exposed to mercury in the environment.”
On March 16, the EPA proposed a strong air quality standard to protect Americans against life-threatening air pollution such as mercury, arsenic and other air toxics from power plants, which are currently allowed to emit this hazardous pollution without national limits. Dirty coal-fired power plants are the number one source of mercury pollution in the United States, emitting more than 130,000 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in the year 2009 alone, according to Environment America.
The hair testing events are part of an effort to raise awareness about the strong, proposed protection for mercury from the EPA and to help generate supportive comments asking the EPA to enact strong federal protections to keep Big Coal and corporate polluters from making us sick. A thorough air toxics safeguard will protect public health, prevent disease and avoid hospitalizations, all while creating new jobs installing air pollution control equipment. According to EPA, the new protection will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma
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