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Environmental group sponsors mercury testing Hair clippings part of an effort to thwart power plants.

By Asher Price
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, May 08, 2008

The latest salvo over new coal-fired power plants for Texas took the form of hair clippings in a hip salon today on South Congress Avenue.

Amid clients getting perms and dyes, at least two dozen people, mostly women, sat one at a time in a stylist's chair at Wet Salon and Studio to get their hair tested for mercury in an event sponsored by the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club.

Coal-fired power plants emit mercury, and the Sierra Club used the occasion to announce its intention to sue some utilities who are planning to build power plants in Texas. Results from the tests, which ask participants to fill out a questionnaire that focuses on their fish-eating habits but not on their proximity to power plants, will not be ready for about two weeks.

Mercury emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities can accumulate in streams and oceans and become methylmercury, a toxic version of elemental mercury. Fish then absorb the methylmercury as they feed.

For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish should not be a health concern, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that might harm an unborn baby or a young child's nervous system. The risks depend on the amount and variety of fish eaten, and the EPA recommends that young children and women who might become pregnant, are pregnant, or nursing avoid some types of fish and limit overall fish consumption.

The hair testing, which will be carried out by the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina Asheville, comes on the heels of a study published in April by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio that said there is a link between autism risk and the distance to a mercury source. The researchers looked at emissions data from power plants and industrial sources in Texas in the late 1990s and autism rates at Texas school districts: According to the study, autism prevalence diminished 1 percent to 2 percent for every 10 miles from the source of mercury emissions.

Texas power plants produce more than 9,000 pounds of mercury per year, and 1 gram of mercury can pollute a 20-acre lake, according to Neil Carman, the clean air program director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

"It's not that simple," said Michael Honeycutt, the toxicology section manager at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "The mercury must be converted by bacteria in the sediment into methylmercury. The methylmercury is bioaccumulated up through the food chain into higher level fish, like bass. Different water bodies have different capacities to transform mercury into methylmercury."

And tracking mercury emissions and its consequences can be difficult work because mercury gets distributed widely. Less than 10 percent of the mercury found on the ground in Texas was actually emitted here, David Allen, an air chemistry professor at the University of Texas, has estimated.

Utilities say older plants are to blame for the worst mercury emission and that the Sierra Club should not target new power plants.

"New power plants being constructed and permitted today are going to be cleaner for all types of emissions, including mercury, than most current plants," Chuck McConnell, chairman of the Clean Coal Technology Foundation of Texas, said in a statement.

Utilities received a blow in February when a federal court rejected a Bush administration proposal for controlling mercury from power plants. The plan would have reduced mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to 38 tons per year by 2010 and 15 tons in 2018. But it would have relied on a cap-and-trade system that would effectively sanction mercury hot spots in some parts of the country, such as Texas. The Sierra Club is arguing that coal-fired power plants under construction should be required to operate under strict mercury controls now that the cap-and-trade system has been discarded.

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643

The Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration give the following guidelines for women and young children:

  1. Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, all of which contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces per week of fish caught from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week. You can call the Department of State Health Services at (800) 685-0361 (shellfish) or (512) 834-6757 (fish) or find local advisories at www.dshs.state.tx.us/seafood/.

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