Mouthful of Mercury, Anyone?

Florida’s mercury pollution must drop nearly 90 percent for safe seafood consumption to continue.
The mullet, seen above, is plentiful in Florida waters. (Photo: FoodPix / Getty Images)
Jul 27, 2012· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Florida has one of the worst mercury problems in the United States, and the news just got worse for citizens of the Sunshine State.

New research from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection shows that the amount of mercury pollution in Florida’s lakes, rivers, and waterways must drop a whopping 86 percent in order for Florida fish to be safe for consumption.

The good news is that Florida is in the process of setting goals to reduce mercury in its waterways and in the Gulf of Mexico—something no other state has done, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. But the details remain unclear, and 86 percent is a daunting figure, especially as most mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, sometimes across state lines.

MORE: Safe to Eat? New Study Examines Mercury in Seafood

When consumed at high levels, mercury can damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetuses. The nervous system is sensitive to all forms of mercury, including methylmercury found in seafood.

Young children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers are at greater risk for mercury-related ailments. Mercury in a mother’s body can pass to a fetus and remain there, causing development problems including brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. Mercury can also be passed through breastmilk to a nursing infant.

Nearly 500 coal-fired power plants emit 78,000 pounds of mercury into the environment each year, and less than one teaspoon of mercury can contaminate an entire lake, according to the Sierra Club. Two-thirds of those coal plants lack the safety equipment to keep mercury and other pollutants out of air and water.

Coal is contaminated with mercury naturally, and when it’s burned to create electricity, mercury pollution can make its way to oceans and waterways. Once there, it can lodge in fish tissue, where it can easily be transferred to fish-lovers. Larger and older fish have accumulated more mercury in their bodies, and for this reason, sharks and swordfish are particularly dangerous. Tunafish is also a concern, since Americans eat so much of it.

While the Florida government has tried to make the risks of seafood consumption available to its citizens, the Department of Health lacks the resources to distribute advisories to high-risk individuals, like anglers who catch and eat fish from contaminated waters, the Florida Sun-Sentinel found.

To make matters worse, many Florida anglers ignore the advisories that are available online. For most species in Florida waters, there is a recommended limit of one to two fish per week, though there are clearly marked “Do Not Eat” indications for the more mercury-laden fish.

Part of the issue is that many anglers in Florida are subsistence fishermen—they catch fish in order to feed their families, and are unable to afford alternative sources of protein. This is a growing concern for many impoverished communities in the U.S. living near polluted bodies of water: Subsistence fishermen from Washington, D.C. routinely hook catfish out of the toxic soup that is the Anacostia River, in lieu of safer, less affordable options.

Non-Floridians can check out this Natural Resources Defense Council guide to learn which fish present the lowest risk for mercury contamination.

But it will likely take stronger regulations of coal-fired power plants to make a real difference to the men, women, and children in the U.S. who eat fish every day for dinner—whether out of necessity or choice.

How worried are you about mercury when you eat fish? Are there any types of seafood to avoid?

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• One Order of Sushi—Hold the Mercury, Please

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• Heavy Metal Seafood: California Seafood Is Rich in Mercury