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Coal, power, and poison in South Carolina

Thursday, November 1, 2007

coal-fired power plant Usually when we talk about toxicity, we talk in parts-per-billion (ppb). South Carolina fisherman Perry White's body contains 6.5 parts-per-million of mercury -- that, in case you weren't sure, is a lot.

It's the fish. Or rather, mercury-contaminated fish is the immediate cause. But the title of an article in today's Charleston Post and Courier belies the fact that the root cause of Perry White's high mercury load is buried much deeper in the South Carolina swamps. It's all about coal, power and poison.

When coal power goes out, mercury pollution goes up, and it's gotta come down somewhere:

Several years ago, for instance, on a university campus near Steubenville, Ohio, scientists set up equipment to catch tiny amounts of mercury that fall from the air. They chose Steubenville because it's within 125 miles of more than a dozen coal-fired power plants.

Over time, scientists found that roughly 70 percent of the mercury falling in that area came from coal combustion near Steubenville.

A companion article, The Mercury Connection, gives a glimpse of the results:

  • Of 41 people tested for The Post and Courier, 17 who eat freshwater fish from South Carolina rivers had hair samples with mercury levels higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Twenty-four had samples higher than what's typically found nationally in people who frequently eat fish.
  • Six who were tested had mercury levels that would put them in the top 1 percent of those measured in a recent nationwide study. Leading mercury scientists and doctors contacted by the newspaper urged those with the highest levels to consider medical attention.

Comments on both articles suggest that nuclear power is the answer since, as we all know, there are no health risks that go along with that. Seriously.