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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living Toxic

Air Date: Week of

Katherine Mieszkowski, a senior writer at the online magazine, Salon dot com, explains why her body has become a toxic waste site.


GELLERMAN: In a few months the White House is expected to announce new restrictions on mercury emissions. High levels of mercury have been showing up in many species of seafood, and the people who eat them, including commentator Katherine Mieszkowski.

MIESZKOWSKI: Too bad Superfund is bankrupt. Because I recently discovered that I am a toxic waste dump. I'm a walking, talking contamination site whose mercury pollution level exceeds federal health guidelines for a woman my age. And, depending on your taste for big carnivorous fish, like shark and albacore tuna, you too could be swimming with the stuff.

As part of a study being conducted for Greenpeace, anyone can get their mercury level tested for 25 dollars. When my own mercury test kit arrived in the mail, I enlisted a co-worker to play the role of medical assistant/hair stylist. She cut a hair sample from the back of my head close to the scalp.

I really wasn't worried. I was curious, but I don't eat THAT much fish. So, after I mailed the sample to a lab at the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, I promptly forgot about it.

Then, a few weeks later, I found out that I am contaminated. My results came back as 1.08 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair, just over the threshold of 1 part per million that's considered safe. And I am not alone. In preliminary results, the study found that 21 percent of women in their reproductive years exhibited mercury levels that exceed federal guidelines.

I rationalized that since I'm just .08 over the limit, it isn't really that big a deal. But when I called the director of the Environmental Quality Institute, which did the testing, he told me: "If you have a level above 1, it's definitely a cause for concern."

Mercury can put a developing fetus or nursing child at risk for brain damage. Children born with high levels of mercury can have learning disabilities, lower IQ, and behavioral problems, like sluggishness. The mom need not have any of symptoms whatsoever to exhibit levels that could harm a child.

The largest manmade source of mercury pollution is the coal-fired power plant, which puts the toxin squarely in the middle of energy politics. The Bush administration is poised to issue new guidelines for regulating mercury pollution in March 2005. But some environmentalists argue their proposed measures won't cut the pollution quickly enough.

If you're concerned about mercury, the EPA suggests you leave big predatory fish, like shark, swordfish and tilefish, out of your diet completely. You're also supposed to limit your intake of other fish and shellfish to about 12 ounces a week -- about two average meals. Albacore tuna is typically higher in mercury than light canned tuna, so limiting albacore to once a week is also advised. Especially recommended are salmon, catfish and shrimp, which all have "decent amounts" of omega-3 fatty acids and relatively low mercury levels.

But watchdog groups challenge the EPA's guidelines as not aggressive enough, suggesting that they subject women and their fetuses and young children to too much risk, while pandering to the fish industry.

Still, the best way for me to get my levels back down into the no-worry zone is to change the fish I eat. And the good news is I can actually get rid of some of that mercury. When people stop eating contaminated fish their levels can drop in just a few months. So, I am cutting back on those tasty carnivores, and I plan to get another test early next year. Let's hope I'm no longer toxic.

GELLERMAN: Katherine Mieszkowski is a senior writer at the online magazine Salon dot com.

[MUSIC: Paul Horn "Friendspip" The Altitude of the Sun (Black*Sun) 1989]



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