Conn. Health I-Team Writer
Despite efforts by the state to curb mercury in the air and water, unhealthy levels of the element in most fish persist, resulting in restrictions on local fish consumption.
“Mercury is a really big issue,” said Gary Rose, director of engineering and enforcement at the Bureau of Air Management the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It’s local. It’s national. It’s international.”
Exposure to mercury, through the air or by eating mercury-laden fish, is toxic to humans. In recent years, there were signs that levels of the substance were declining in the state’s water.
A University of Connecticut study of fish found that in 22 lakes tested statewide where year-over-year comparisons were done, the overall mercury concentration declined by 17 percent, from 0.41 parts per million in 1995 to 0.34 parts per million in 2005-06, the most-recent data available. However, that’s still higher than the .2 parts per million that’s the threshold for unhealthy mercury levels.
Also, fish in seven waterways, including Canoe Brook Lake in Trumbull and Lake Kenosia in Danbury, contained increased levels of mercury, the study by UConn Professor Christopher Perkins showed.
While the study doesn’t test the fish in rivers and streams, the state Department of Public Health declared a fish consumption advisory for all the state’s waters. Since much of the mercury contamination comes from the air, officials know that it’s in the lakes and rivers, said state DPH epidemiologist Brian Toal.
Mercury’s health risks
Mercury can attack the central nervous system and damage the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys and immune system. Developing fetuses and small children are especially susceptible, and mercury can cause neurological and developmental damage.
Based upon blood sampling data, federal scientists estimated that between 300,000 and 630,000 infants are born in the United States each year with mercury levels that are associated, at later ages, with the loss of IQ, according to a report published by Environmental Health Perspectives. Research attributed this to pregnant women’s consumption of mercury-contaminated fish.
The state DEEP has worked to lower mercury levels through implementing tighter emissions restrictions, banning the manufacture and sale of most mercury-added products and encouraging proper recycling.
For instance, nationwide, only an estimated 2 percent of household compact fluorescent light bulbs are recycled properly, according to the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers. In Connecticut, only 4 percent of households participate in hazardous waste collection days, which is when mercury-containing CFLs, thermostats and thermometers should be recycled.
Instead, those items usually end up in one of the state’s trash-to-energy plants, where, through the disposal process, mercury gas is emitted into the air and eventually pollutes waterways and ends up in fish. While 40 percent of mercury pollution in Connecticut comes from out-of-state sources such as Midwestern coal-fired plants, volcanoes and other sources of pollution, 60 percent comes from in-state sources — primarily the state’s six trash-to-energy plants and its one coal-fired plant in Bridgeport.
In 2012, the coal-fired PSEG Power Bridgeport Harbor Station, operating a total of 561 hours, emitted 0.33 pounds of mercury, while the state’s trash-to-energy plants collectively emitted 48.52 pounds of mercury, DEEP figures show. That’s enough mercury to contaminate 28.8 million fish, according to Professor Robert Mason, of the Marine Sciences and Chemistry Department at UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton.
Still, there have been mercury reductions in some local freshwater fish and those are due, in part, to the New England governors’ commitment to a “virtual elimination goal for mercury” made in 1998. “Subsequently, that included placing mercury control devices on waste incinerators and coal-fired power plants both in Connecticut and throughout the region,” said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project.
“The good news is that we are making a dent in reducing local pollution, but the bad news is that national and international sources of mercury continue to rain down on us.”
Fish consumption advisories
With fishing season here, people who get their fishing licenses receive the state DPH advisories on eating fish caught in Connecticut waters. In a video created by the Connecticut Health I-Team, several local fisherman were interviewed at Jimmy O’s Bait and Tackle in Bridgeport and said they generally stick to the guidelines. “You just use your own judgment,” said Thomas St. Cyr, of Stratford. “But basically, I don’t want to get sick.”
Jimmy O’s owner, Jimmy Orifice, said he feels most fish in the region are safe to eat, but he and other fishermen do take precautions. “We bleed the fish when we catch them,” he said. “Most of the toxins are in the blood.”
Meanwhile, multiple studies report that those with fish as a dietary staple and subsistence fishermen eat the fish they catch far more frequently than the health advisories of once a month for pregnant and nursing women and small children, and once a week for adults.
“Lower-income people are affected a lot worse” by mercury in the fish, said Dr. Mark Mitchell, co-chair of the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association, who researched people fishing in the Connecticut River. “When I asked Latinos, African Americans, Asians — they all said they ate the fish. Nobody threw the fish back,” Mitchell said. He found that the sustenance fishermen were unaware that they were required to get a license to fish in public waters.
The state health department has the equivalent of a full-time person working with nonprofits and religious institutions that serve low-income people to educate them about fish-consumption restrictions. “We send information to physicians. We send it to tackle shops and town halls,” said DPH’s Toal.
“It’s labor intensive. We do as much as we can with the resources that we have. We probably don’t do as much as we could.”
For the state public health fish consumption advisories, visit http://www.ct.gov/dph/cwp/view.asp?a=3140&Q=387460.
Stores in Connecticut that recycle CFLs are: IKEA, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org)