Something is rotten in the state of Connecticut — but not as rotten as it was in 2001.
The state received a “B” on the annual mercury contamination report card, up from a poor “D” in 2001. Connecticut scored in the middle of the five other New England states included in the report, which documents efforts to prevent mercury contamination that can poison tuna and other common fish. New Hampshire came in on the bottom with a “C-” and Maine led all of New England with a “B+” grade.
The New England Zero Mercury Campaign, established in 2000, aims to eliminate the use and release of mercury by 2010 and to protect the public from the dangers of mercury contamination in fish. These two main goals were the basis of the report card, which evaluated the six states based on 50 different points and 10 broad categories.
Mercury is released into the atmosphere as waste mainly from coal-burning power plants. When it rains, mercury falls into to the ground and accumulates in lakes and rivers. Eventually it enters into the bodies of fish, and, unlike other problematic chemicals such as PCBs, mercury is deposited not only in the fat of the fish, but throughout the entire body. As a neurotoxin, mercury is potentially dangerous to humans because it may cause brain damage and possibly contribute to heart disease and liver damage. Pregnant women and small children are particularly at risk to these dangers.
“The mercury health problem is everywhere, even in the pristine lakes up in Maine,” said Nancy Alderman ’94, the president of Environment and Human Health, Inc., based in North Haven.
She said mercury emissions from coal-burning plants all across the country contribute to even the most remote lakes and rivers. Scientists have found particularly high amounts of mercury in these isolated lakes due to a more complex food chain.
“The fact that mercury is in our fish is absolutely incredible,” Alderman said.
Connecticut received its high grade primarily as a result of the Mercury Products Bill passed this year. The legislation was the first of its kind to reduce mercury from coal-burning power plants.
But Brooke Suter, director of Clean Water Action in Connecticut and leader of the state’s Zero Mercury Campaign, said the majority of people are still unaware of the dangers of mercury in contaminated fish, including canned tuna and most freshwater fish. In a survey of 169 Hartford and New Haven residents, Suter found that over half were completely unaware of government warnings regarding mercury in fish, and nearly three-quarters had not heard of mercury contamination in canned tuna.
Suter said she believes the best way to get people eating safely is through public education.
“Fish can be a good source of protein,” said Suter in a press release. “But in order for consumers to eat fish safely, the Department of Public Health clearly needs to ramp up its efforts to inform the public about this danger and require that stores and restaurants post warnings for people to see when they are purchasing fish.”
Suter said she hopes to begin instructing community leaders in a variety of Connecticut cities, starting with a daylong program in New Haven sometime in late October.
But because the recent legislation passed does not come into effect for another couple years, Suter said there was a need to make sure laws are implemented without being obstructed by special interest groups actively working to dismantle laws regarding emissions.
“I’m very hopeful for the future of the campaign and for Connecticut,” Suter said.