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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Protecting Our Local Waterways

Mercury Levels Dangerous to Women and Children


Watching the little silver balls of elemental mercury from a broken thermometer rolling across the floor once played an entertaining role in many of our childhoods. Now, our streams, creeks, lakes, and even our dinner plates expose us to the same element that for safety reasons has been removed from most thermometers.

Fishes from creeks and rivers throughout the Carolinas and US are regularly found with unsafe concentrations of mercury in their tissues. Many people are exposed to this neurotoxin when they eat fish and shellfish. Almost everyone has at least trace amounts of methlymercury in their tissues, reflecting its widespread prevalence in our environment and its exposure to us through our consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish.

In 1999, Lower Mackey Creek, the headwaters region of the Catawba River basin, was listed as an impaired waterbody due to increased Mercury concentrations. More recently, according to the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, levels of mercury deposited into our region have increased from 2000 to 2006, nearly doubling the amount of mercury wet-deposited in the mountainous region of the basin.

Released into the environment through the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and industry, mercury is naturally transformed into methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that concentrates in the tissues of living organisms.

The most disheartening fact about methlymercury-laced foods, pertains to those individuals most egregiously affected: developing fetuses, infants and children. Exposed to methlymercury in the womb, through breast milk and contaminated food, the primary health effect of methlymercury on our children is impaired neurological development.

Impacts on cognitive abilities, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been documented in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb. As of 2004, research shows that approximately 8% of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their bloodstream.

The North Carolina Department of Health estimates that at least 13,677 children per year are born in the state with blood mercury levels that place them at risk for life-long learning disabilities, fine motor and attention deficits, and lowered IQs. New research reported by the National Institutes of Health shows that the effects of methlymercury on the IQ of our children will cost our nation $8.7 billion annually

The Catawba River has afforded this region economic and recreational prosperity as well as a reliable drinking water supply for the last century. The designation of the Catawba as America’s Most Endangered River, however, demonstrates that this river, while versatile, cannot continue to fight the barrage of pressures it faces without help.

As designed, Duke Energy’s expansion of Cliffside Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant just west of the Catawba River basin, is estimated to release over 400lbs. of mercury to our environment annually.

"We must make sure Duke Energy limits their release of mercury to the best possible extent for the sake our children’s health, safety and development," says David Merryman, Catawba Riverkeeper. "Carolina residents, born and unborn, literally, cannot afford this additional release of mercury to our waterways."

Protecting our nation’s waterways and food supplies from mercury contamination must be of utmost importance. "Working together we can protect and clean up our waters, not only to make sure our fish are safe for consumption but to protect our children and future generations from developmental deficits," concludes Merryman.

For more information or to help protect our waters, please contact David Merryman, Catawba Riverkeeper, at 704-679-9494.

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