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Mercury now in most Hoosier bodies of water


June 03, 2009
Most people take for granted the ability to flip a small switch on the wall and get instant light in every room of their home. And there's an almost countless number of electrical appliances that people use every day without a second thought. Everything from heating and air conditioning units to televisions, stereos, computers, microwaves, refrigerators, water heaters and even alarm clocks are run by a source of power people seldom even think about. And most of those things were invented simply because access to electricity made them possible.

But there's a negative side to all that power that, in the last few years, has become known: mercury.

Most of the electricity used in this area comes from coal-fired power plants scattered all over the Midwest. And electricity itself, produced for the masses, is a fairly young technology. Less than a hundred years ago, most American homes were still using other forms of power for lights: candles, natural gas and even kerosene. Electricity brought the world out of what many consider the dark age of lighting, only to take it to the age of pollution.

People have been hearing about these things for years, things like ozone, acid rain, global warming, climate change, dioxin, PCBs and other pollution-related terms. But it's eventually going to be difficult to ignore mercury. It now has been found in almost every body of water in Indiana (not to mention the whole Midwest) — creeks, lakes, ponds and rivers — and it's not going away anytime soon, at least as long as the region's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

Indiana is one of the "Dirty Dozen" states — along with Ohio, Missouri, North Dakota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgia, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina — those with the largest number of power plants generating the highest mercury emissions.

As far back as 10 years ago, problems related to mercury emissions in Indiana were known. In the Clarion News on April 7, 1999, the Indiana State Department of Health issued a Fish Consumption Advisory for eating sport-caught fish.

"The advisory is designed to provide people with guidelines on how much and how often they should eat sport-caught fish," Mario Sgro, environmental scientist for the ISDH, said in the press release. "By following the advisory and eating fish in moderation, you can help avoid the risk of accumulating contaminants over time and gain the benefits of a protein source that's low in fat."

The contaminants that were included in the tests on the water were not just mercury, but also polychlorinated biphenyls, chlordane, DDT and hexachlorobnezene, lead and cadmium.

According to a recent article in The Indianapolis Star, things haven't improved. Levels of mercury remain high in Indiana streams and lakes despite efforts to reduce the contaminant, which is a known cause of neurological damage. And by 2004, 44 states had advisories in effect for mercury in fish.

A U.S. Geological Survey study found that more than 80 percent of samples taken from 2004 to 2006 contained mercury. Preliminary analyses of data collected in 2007 and 2008 indicate not much has changed. Many of the samples taken during that period contained enough mercury to harm humans. The amount of fish that can be safely eaten from Indiana waters depends on the size, the species and the stream in which it is caught. Pregnant or breastfeeding women and children younger than 15 are advised not to eat any.

Mercury can also enter streams through industrial wastewater. Automotive switches, dental fillings, thermometers and other medical waste can add to the contamination.

According to The Indianapolis Star article, water tested at Clifty Falls, a recreational site near Madison, had levels of mercury that were among the highest of any precipitation collection in the nation. Clifty Falls is located close to several power plants and is just downstream from an older plant.

John Blair, president of Valley Watch of Evansville, said power plants in southwestern Indiana emit more mercury than most others, but there's no testing site for precipitation there.

"They didn't want to have true data from the area that truly is the largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the world," Blair said.

So far, scientists have no answer on when, if ever, there will be a decrease in mercury emissions in streams.

Just weeks ago, according to The Washington Post, more than 140 countries agreed to negotiate a legally binding treaty aimed at decreasing the use of mercury, with the goal of reducing people's exposure to the metal worldwide.

The agreement, announced at a United Nations meeting of environmental ministers in Nairobi, came after the Obama administration reversed U.S. policy and joined the binding pact. Once the administration said it was reversing the course set by President George W. Bush, China, India and several other nations also agreed to endorse the plan for a mandatory treaty.

The Bush administration had said it preferred to push for voluntary reductions in mercury admissions because the process of negotiating a treaty would be "long and cumbersome."

Scientists are now making a connection between mercury and autism in children. Like lead, mercury has long been linked to abnormal brain development in children.

One new study showed that the prevalence of autism in a community is reduced by 1 to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from a pollution source of mercury, like power plants.

Along with fish and industrial wastes, mercury is also found in compact fluorescent light bulbs that many Americans are beginning to use because they use less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs.

The mercury in the bulbs is safe as long as the bulbs are intact. But when the bulbs are not recycled and disposed of properly, in a safe and cautious manner, the bulbs can break and release toxic mercury.

"The problem with the bulbs is that they'll break before they reach a landfill, or they'll break in a dumpster or a garbage truck which can expose workers to high levels of mercury," John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said in a recent radio interview.

The bulbs can also contaminate soil when the bulbs break.

Even though the compact fluorescent bulbs can be purchased locally from several stores such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens and most hardware stores, disposing of them is a different matter. The solid waste agencies in local counties are not set up to accept them for recycling. The only stores that both sell them and accept them for recycling are the Home Depot stores in New Albany, Clarksville and Louisville.

But the main source of mercury in Indiana streams and lakes is coal-fired power plants. The fairly cheap electricity Indiana residents consume seems to dampen efforts to explore other sources of electricity. One source of power that is being promoted is biomass plants, or plants that burn wood and wood by-products to produce energy. Drawbacks of these plants include the huge amounts of wood needed. Even in Oregon, where wood supplies seem plentiful, there are now debates about being able to supply enough material for the plants without harming national and state forests, where most of the wood products would come from. Another drawback of the plants is that they are stationary; therefore, wood products have to be transported to the plant, which creates what many claim is more pollution than the plants help reduce.

Other sources of electricity that may help in Indiana are solar and wind power. Many areas in Indiana receive enough wind, especially in the northern part of the state, to supply a substantial amount of power. And solar panels, while not as useful in Indiana as in states like New Mexico, can still produce enough power to offset some of the electricity supplied by coal-fired plants.

A combination of both solar and wind power can significantly reduce the power the state now gets from coal.

But one of the most beneficial things Hoosiers can do is to reduce the amount of power they use; in other words, conserve. The more people conserve, the less coal will be needed.

And although coal is a cheap form of power, it also has a tremendous cost in areas where it is mined. Entire mountaintops are removed in states like Kentucky and West Virginia to provide other areas with the power they use.

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Barbara Shaw
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