Just another fish story

Mercury in fish can be toxic, but the state would rather you didn't know

Today's eco-lesson will focus on mercury, also known as quicksilver. Mercury is one of the coolest elements — it's a metal that's a liquid at room temperature, yet is dense enough to float a cannonball.

Volcanic ash contains mercury. So do old thermometers and batteries. But by far, the greatest emitters of mercury are coal-fired power plants, which in an average year in the U.S. spew 40 tons of the stuff into the air. Southern Co.'s power plants, by the way, emitted more mercury than any other utility in the nation in 1998, the latest year such information is available.

Gravity and rain wash the mercury into lakes and streams, where it's converted to an organic form called methylmercury and builds up in the tissue of fish. Eat the fish and you're eating the mercury. In small amounts, most scientists and health experts agree, that's usually not a problem. But certain people are at higher risk, including those who eat lots of fish, as well as children whose mothers consumed too much mercury-contaminated fish when they were pregnant. Those children may suffer learning disabilities, and sometimes learn to walk and talk at a later age than their peers.

So on one level, it's comforting that the state is looking to implement standards saying how much mercury in fish is safe to eat. Closer examination, however, shows that the state's plan is more about pleasing the federal government than it is about keeping us safe.

Throughout Georgia, thousands of miles of waterways have been declared "impaired" by the federal government. A host of reasons can lead to that designation — too much bacteria, too much PCB, too much silt. An impaired river or lake is technically in violation of the Clean Water Act, and could lead to fines, lawsuits and orders from the feds to clean up the water.

Whether a river is "fishable" goes a long way in determining if a river is impaired or not. And few measures of fishability are more important than mercury levels in the fish. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has decreed that only a certain level of mercury in fish is acceptable. More than that, it says, the fish is too dangerous to eat; that waterway becomes impaired.

In metro Atlanta alone, more than 1,000 miles of waterways are already designated "impaired." Applying tougher mercury standards would doubtless increase that total, so it's no surprise that the EPD wants to apply the weakest standards it can get away with.

What may surprise even the most cynical Georgian is that the state Environmental Protection Division currently has no plans to actively inform those who eat fish from state waters which rivers aren't passing the mercury muster. No signs will be posted on riverbanks, no bulletins tacked up on bait shop doors, no outreach to the people who eat large amounts of fish.

Instead, anglers will continue to rely on the EPD's "Guidelines for Eating Fish from Georgia Waters," which lists which fish are edible in every major waterway in the state. Problem is, even the state acknowledges that those guidelines aren't based on hard statistical evidence, but are more suggestions than anything else.

The man who came up with the consumption guidelines for EPD, Randall Manning, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology and coordinates EPD's Environmental Toxicology program, says the guidelines were "designed with the intent to provide voluntary information to the public and do not really feed into a regulatory program. So we are comfortable making recommendations off of what are I believe reasonable data sets, but they are not extremely large or statistically robust."

In other words, they're estimates. Of course, even rough guidelines are better than nothing at all. But that brings up a further problem with the state's efforts to keep its residents safe from mercury poisoning. While the guidelines are free for the asking, the only ones who likely know about them are licensed anglers. Ignored are the Georgia residents most at risk for mercury-related conditions — who live near the rivers, who are poor and often black, who fish to live, who eat fish three or four or five times a week, and who don't bother with licenses or tackle shops.

Indeed, the state's proposed guidelines seem designed solely with the casual fisherman in mind, not those who rely on fish for their dinners. Consider: Under the EPD's proposed rules, a 154-pound adult could eat 4 ounces or so of fish from Georgia waters per week without risk, or 1.12 pounds of fish per month. A 50-pound child could eat only a quarter-pound of fish per month risk-free. Beyond those amounts, according to the numbers, Georgia fish eaters risk health impacts from mercury contamination.

Not surprisingly, the proposed guidelines have drawn the ire of environmental groups, who believe that if the EPD is going to the trouble of establishing standards, they should at least be tough enough to do some good.

The groups, which include the Canoochee Riverkeeper and the Coosa River Basin Initiative, cite a 2001 study of anglers on the Savannah River, conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia and Rutgers. The study showed the average angler on the Savannah River consumed three times the proposed limit, and African-American fishermen consume nearly 4.5 times the proposed limit.

A previous study conducted by many of the same researchers found that, of the 258 anglers surveyed, 85 percent ate the fish they caught.

Manning knows that not everyone who fishes in Georgia knows about the dangers of eating their catch du jour. He's currently working on publishing a Spanish version of the consumption guidelines. He's also pushing to get county health departments to distribute easy-to-understand pamphlets to expecting mothers.

But he acknowledges that because of funding problems and bureaucracy, it may be years before the pamphlets for Georgia's Hispanic population and expecting mothers are available.

And Manning insists that the new standards are tough enough to shield fish eaters from mercury's harm.

"We believe our calculations are very protective, because we're assuming that you eat the high mercury fish," Manning says. "Most of the time that's not the case."