Mercury report details toxic fish

Study finds 59% of catch in Md. waters contains unsafe levels for infants, kids


Nearly 60 percent of fish taken from Maryland waters show concentrations of toxic mercury at levels unsafe for infants and children, an environmental advocacy group said in a report released yesterday.

At a news conference at Middle Branch Park, with Baltimore's industrial waterfront and a clutch of fishermen in the background, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group issued what it called the most detailed report to date on mercury levels in fish and shellfish caught in Maryland.

The group's report, based on data collected by state agencies, said 59 percent of samples had mercury levels higher than the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that people begin limiting their consumption.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section yesterday about mercury contamination in fish misspelled the name of a policy associate for the Maryland Public Interest Group. His name is Chris Fick.
The Sun regrets the error.

Almost 9 percent of the 1,939 fish samples had readings of mercury 10 times that high, the report said.

"Lawmakers need to take every step possible to reduce mercury pollution so that Marylanders can safely eat the fish caught in our waterways," said Chris Pick, a MaryPIRG policy associate.

Pick praised the Healthy Air Act recently passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The law will require coal-burning power plants to install equipment to limit emission of mercury and other pollutants. Pick urged the governor to push hard to incorporate the mercury-reduction provisions as the model for a regional approach when the 13 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states of the Ozone Transport Commission meet in June.

Tad Aburn, director of the Air and Radiation Management Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the Ehrlich administration has started laying the groundwork for such a push.

He noted that the governor had proposed mercury control rules before passage of the act, which he signed despite earlier reservations about the legislature's decision to include carbon dioxide limits.

Aburn expressed optimism that the ozone commission, which includes states from Maine to Virginia, could adopt regional guidelines similar to Maryland's law.

"A lot of states have already moved ahead and done things similar to what we've done," said Aburn. "Everybody's got mercury on their radar screen. It's a very important pollutant."

But Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the utility-sponsored Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said some states that depend heavily on coal-fired plants will have a hard time adopting a law like Maryland's. He predicted the approach could increase electric bills.

"It's very easy for environmentalists to stand up and have another press conference and say, `We have to have it everywhere,'" Maisano said. "It's really going to have an effect on the people who can least afford it."

Katie Huffling, a registered nurse who spoke at the news conference, said mercury absorbed from fish consumption can have a profoundly damaging effect on babies developing in their mothers' wombs. She said the effects might not be apparent at birth but could show up over a period of years.

"They might reach their milestones later than you would expect," said Huffling, who works at the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. She said children exposed to mercury may develop learning disabilities and often cannot keep up in school.

Huffling said many parents don't know about the problems of mercury in fish - especially large ocean predators such as shark and swordfish. For that reason, she said, it is a topic stressed in prenatal care.

The MaryPIRG report suggests there may be good reason for maternal caution about local fish as well. It found high levels of mercury in fish caught in the Chesapeake Bay and freshwater streams and reservoirs.

The survey found wide variations among species. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, white perch and channel catfish were among the species where more than 10 percent of the samples showed mercury levels greater than 300 parts per billion.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set 30 parts per billion as the level at which a woman of childbearing age should start limiting consumption of fish to 16 meals per month. At 10 times that, it recommends no more than two or three such meals per month.

Sylvester Williamson of Glen Burnie, who brought his grandchildren yesterday to fish off the same pier where MaryPIRG met with reporters, said he is aware of mercury pollution.

He said he loves to catch and eat fish but has limited his consumption.

"It's a shame. You spend your money and pay for a license to fish and you can't eat what you catch," he said, pointing to his grandchildren. "It's kind of killing the sport for them."

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