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Our Column

En español
The Human Thermometer
By Javier Sierra

Laura Pugliese, an Argentinean who lives in Miami, never thought her body could become a thermometer- a toxicity thermometer, whose mercury would rise to unimaginable levels.

Two years ago, she found out that mercury poisoning was a clear and present danger for her and millions of other women of child-bearing age. She decided to test herself through a simple procedure that detects mercury levels in human hair. The results stunned her. Her mercury levels significantly exceeded the EPA's maximum acceptable, safe levels.

"I was planning to have my first baby and was following a strict diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the only animal protein I was eating was fish," Laura remembers. "I had no idea that I was actually poisoning myself."

It turns out that mercury in its most toxic form- methyl mercury- enters the human body through the fish we eat. And Laura, like millions of other Latinas, was consuming the kinds of fish that contain the most methyl mercury, tuna and salmon.

This very toxic poison affects the immune system, alters the genetic and enzyme systems and damages the nervous system. But methyl mercury is five times as toxic for an embryo- it can cause neurological problems, learning disabilities and even mental retardation. Newborns and very young children are also especially vulnerable.

"When I saw the test results I had to make a drastic change in my life," recalls Laura. "I decided not to have a baby. It was too grave a risk."

A new study confirms that Laura's problem is actually an epidemic. The survey -sponsored by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and published earlier this month by the University of North Carolina at Asheville- tested hair samples from more than 2,800 women of child-bearing age, 22.5 percent of whom showed dangerous levels of mercury in their blood.

The report corroborates a previous EPA study saying that up to 630,000 babies are born each year in the US with dangerous levels of mercury. Since Latinas' fertility rate is the highest in the country, our families are especially vulnerable to the effects of this poison.

Where does all this mercury come from? The largest source is coal-burning power plants, which spew tons of this pollutant into the air each year. The mercury falls in the form of rain into lakes, rivers and streams, where it becomes methyl mercury and is absorbed by fish and shellfish.

This situation reached crisis proportions in 2004 when the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration issued an alert advising women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, and nursing mothers to avoid certain kinds of fish to prevent mercury poisoning.

45 states have issued similar warnings, and out of the five states with the most mercury pollution, three have very high Latino populations -Florida, Illinois and Texas.

Ironically, there already exists the necessary technology to practically eliminate mercury emissions. What is missing is the Bush administration's political will to enforce these existing standards. And this, Laura says, is unacceptable.

"As a citizen of this country and of this planet, our government's attitude infuriates me," says Laura. "We already have the solutions to stop this epidemic. I think it is shameless what they are doing against the environment, which is what keeps us all alive."

There are systems already in use that could reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent. To put them to work widely would cost the industry less than 1 percent of its revenues.

However, the coal sector opts instead to invest its money in influencing the administration -no other politician has received more contributions from this industry than President Bush- in order to change the law that, if left alone, would reduce mercury emission by 90 percent by 2008.

In return, the EPA announced a rule that allows coal-burning plants to spew three times more mercury than what the current law would permit.

The coal industry and the Bush administration are showing a callous indifference to the millions of women and children who will become toxicity thermometers. If you are a woman of child-bearing age, I recommend that you test yourself for mercury the same way Laura did. Visit for details, and to learn which fish are safest to eat.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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