BALTIMORE – Maryland ranks near the bottom of 46 states surveyed for inadequate warnings of mercury contamination in fish, according to a report released Wednesday by two non-profit environmental groups.
Children and pregnant women are most at risk for mercury poisoning from contaminated fish because of the poor warning system, according to MaryPIRG and the Cleanup Coalition, which released the report, “Fishing for Trouble: A Survey of Mercury Contamination in America’s Waterways.”
Standing near the banks of the Patapsco River, representatives from the two organizations urged the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen their standards for reporting and monitoring mercury contamination.
Maryland ranks 43rd out of 46 states surveyed for having the weakest systems for issuing mercury advisories and does not warn residents until contamination is more than five times higher than many states consider safe, according to the report.
“A man in Maryland could eat a fish containing five times the amount of mercury that would trigger a warning in the state of Delaware,” said Lea Johnston, an environmental advocate with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
The state’s environment department is re-evaluating its threshold for mercury.
“We are concerned and will act to protect sensitive populations,” said MDE spokesman Quentin Banks. He said the state will discuss the issue this spring during a conference with the EPA.
High mercury levels in consumed fish and shellfish can cause health effects such as neurological disorders, learning disabilities and kidney damage in children, said Johnston. She said mercury can be passed from mother to child through breast milk and can harm a fetus.
“We’re the bottom of the barrel when it comes to protecting our children from contaminated fish,” Johnston said. “Mercury is extremely toxic and we should have stronger standards for it.”
A significant amount of mercury pollution goes unreported to the public and policy makers, according to Terry Harris, president of the Cleanup Coalition.
“Mercury levels are increasing every year, largely due to increased mercury pollution from industries like power plants and incinerators,” he said in a written statement.
“The public deserves the right to know about mercury dangers and polluters should be held responsible for their mercury emissions.”
“Not only do we not know when we’re being exposed to mercury contamination levels that are dangerous, we also don’t know who is responsible for mercury emissions,” she said.
Maryland has never issued a mercury fish advisory, Banks said, but has warned the public against consuming fish contaminated with other toxins. The mercury level in fish in Maryland waterways was most recently measured at .4 parts per million, according to Banks. Maryland uses a 1 ppm mercury level standard, the same as that set by the Federal Drug Administration.
But Johnston said the 1 ppm standard is based on the lowest level at which adverse effects were found to occur in adults, and do not take into account other members of the population.
Banks said MaryPIRG has another motive in releasing its report. It’s “a plank in (the group’s) campaign” to put pressure on power plants to control their emissions.
EPA is moving to improve its right-to- know program, which gives the public information about chemical emissions.
In December, the EPA proposed to increase public reporting of toxic chemicals released into local communities. The proposal would apply to certain toxins, such as mercury, that build up in animal and human tissues.
“The agency is taking steps to reduce mercury in the environment,” said an EPA spokeswoman who declined to be identified.
Twenty-seven states have adopted more stringent thresholds than Maryland, she said.