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KY Moms Test Manes for Mercury

March 30, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It was no ordinary haircut for mother Alissa Rossi, who visited a downtown Lexington salon - not for a new look to her locks but to see if her mane shows mercury concentrations in her body.

The Sierra Club is sponsoring similar events across the nation to draw attention to the health impacts of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. Coal foes say the heavy metal makes its way into waterways, threatening aquatic life and public health.

Rossi trimmed a little off the top to test for mercury that environmentalists say puts women of child-bearing age at risk of harming their babies, especially if the mothers-to-be eat a lot of fish.

"You hear all these things about how you should be eating fish because they have all these great omega-3s and things that are really important for babies' brain development. But then when you look into it and try to figure out what kind of fish is safe, it gets kind of nerve-wracking because it seems like very little fish is safe."

Lauren McGrath, associate campaign representative of the Sierra Club of Kentucky's Beyond Coal Campaign, says mercury is a potent neurotoxin that's especially dangerous to small children and developing babies.

"Exposure to mercury in-utero can contribute to high developmental disorders, birth defects, even delayed onset of walking and talking."

A recent report analyzing data from the EPA named Kentucky the sixth most mercury-polluted state in the nation, with coal-fired power plants emitting close to 6,000 pounds of it in 2009. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed federal rules to limit mercury emissions from the nation's fleet of coal-fueled power plants - a move McGrath says is long overdue.

"At least one in 12 and as many as one in six American women have mercury high enough in their bodies to put their baby at risk. So, that's why attention to this new proposed rule - and then also, in the short term, paying attention to the type of fish we're consuming - is very critical."

Knowledge is key, Rossi says, and so is action.

"On the larger scale, all of us - not just pregnant women and the people who love them, but all of us - need to make an effort to kind of raise a call for the EPA to do its job and protect us from these kind of contaminates."

The coal industry and many Kentucky policymakers are squawking at the EPA's pollution-control efforts, claiming that more stringent regulations will force electricity rates to rise and threaten thousands of mining jobs.

The clips of hair are being tested for mercury by a University of Georgia laboratory. The results are expected in two to three weeks.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY