Mercury Contamination Moves Beyond Fish

Mercury contamination is making its way into nearly every habitat in the United States, not just oceans, according to a report that the National Wildlife Federation will release Tuesday.

The problem with high mercury levels in certain types of fish has been well documented, resulting in 46 states issuing advisories for pregnant women and children to avoid eating certain types of fish, including tuna and swordfish. High levels of mercury can lead to a wide range of physical ills, including kidney and neurological damage, and can cause fatigue, vision problems and tremors.

But this is the first report to expose the problem in such a wide variety of species, 40 to be exact.

The report "underscored how pervasive mercury contamination has become," according to Felice Stadler at the National Wildlife Federation. "Nearly every aspect of our food web has been contaminated. It's difficult to find an ecosystem that's not contaminated, whether it's ocean or forest or coastal waters or wetlands."

Scientists found high levels of mercury in bald eagles, songbirds, polar bears and alligators, to name just a few species. Alligator meat is very popular in the southeast, but there is no advisory against eating alligator meat.

Last year Utah issued an advisory for duck hunters, warning people to limit or avoid eating certain duck species because of high levels of mercury.

Stadler said this report "raises the question of what ecosystems are safe and immune from toxic contamination."

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but people release much more mercury pollution that ends up in our forests, lakes, and streams -- 100 tons in this country alone annually. The primary sources include coal-burning power plants, wastewater treatment plants and waste incinerators.

The mercury pollution is affecting the reproduction and behavior of fish and wildlife. The report's findings suggest birds with high levels of mercury lay fewer eggs, and the motor skills of certain mammals have been diminished, which affects their ability to hunt and therefore survive.

The report points out "there truly is no link in the food chain untouched by mercury," and according to Stadler, this carries broad implications for humans.

"The research shows birds that eat contaminated insects get contaminated themselves," Stadler said. "Turkeys and chickens, which humans eat, eat those same contaminated insects, so this is the tip of the iceberg."

There is some good news in an otherwise glum report: Mercury poisoning is reversible.

Stadler pointed to several states that in recent years have taken steps to cut mercury emissions, including Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

And in a much shorter time than expected, the mercury levels in those states' fish and wildlife populations have dropped

Stadler, who's been working on the issue of mercury pollution for 10 years, said she was originally told it would take 50 years before scientists would see some reversal.

"But it's happening much faster than we ever thought, five to six years," she said.

Stadler said she believes the key is for this country -- and the whole world for that matter -- to realize just how big a threat mercury pollution is to our ecosystems.

"We need to be as drastic at cutting mercury as we have been in cutting lead," she said.

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