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Report: Mercury Contaminating More than Just Fish

January 25, 2012

NEW YORK - Levels of mercury in New York's birds and bats are at dangerously high levels, a new study has found. The problem is widespread in the Northeast, it says, and especially severe in upstate communities which have had problems with acid rain.

Most people think of mercury contamination as affecting fish and mostly a concern in remote areas, says Dr. Timothy Tear, director of science for The Nature Conservancy. However, he says, the "Hidden Risk" report shows that the mercury problem is far more widespread.

"Our report has shown that it is a problem in the land-based or terrestrial world, and it's in a lot more species, including many species of birds."

Birds at contaminated sites are three times more likely to abandon their nests, the report says, so they are less likely to reproduce. Mercury contains a potent neurotoxin that, in humans, can be passed on to children in the uterus and can result in learning disorders and nerve damage.

Mercury gets into the air from coal that is burned in power plants, Tear says. People and wildlife in the Adirondacks and Catskills are getting a one-two punch, he says, especially in areas affected by the ongoing problem of acid rain.

"We now know that mercury gets into the environment and is associated with that acid rain, and it makes it worse. So, for us, it's both an acid-rain problem and a neurotoxic rain problem - and we need to solve them both."

The Environmental Protection Agency adopted new federal mercury-pollution standards last month which are likely to be challenged in court, says Syracuse University professor Charles Driscoll, director of the Center for Environmental Systems Engineering.

"We know that most of the mercury contamination comes from the atmosphere, and so I think that the fact that we have this Utility Mercury Rule is good because that's our major emission source in the U.S."

The new rules to limit mercury pollution are slated to take effect during the next four years.

The report is online at nature.org/newyork.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NY