Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members A Hair-Raising Lesson By Orli Cotel
Participating in a national study on mercury's health effects, Julia Smith gets a trim.
Julia Smith might be having the ultimate bad-hair day—one that no amount of styling will fix. A mother of three, Smith is worried she may have high levels of toxic mercury in her body, which is released through hair. That's why she dropped by a Sierra Club and Greenpeace event at a salon in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where women could donate a lock to get it tested.
Mercury is a poisonous metal that acts as a neurotoxin: It can damage the nervous system and heart in adults and cause learning disabilities and developmental delays in young children. One in six U.S. women of childbearing age has enough of the contaminant in her body to threaten a fetus; more than 630,000 babies with dangerously elevated mercury levels are born every year. Because pregnant and nursing women and infants are most susceptible, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration have warned them to limit their exposure.
The excess mercury mostly comes from coal-fired power plants, which emit some 48 tons annually. After entering waterways, mercury reaches our dinner tables via contaminated fish. "I grew up eating tuna all the time, and I don't want to have to worry about whether or not it's safe for my kids," says Smith.
Women have been lining up to get tested at similar events nationwide. Since mercury may put middle-aged males at greater risk for coronary heart disease, many men have also participated. The testing is part of a University of North Carolina study on mercury's health effects on the U.S. population.
Mercury levels in the bloodstream drop within five months of reducing one's exposure, so those affected should cut back on heavy sources like albacore. Smith's results were just above the EPA's limit—enough to warrant a new diet. "The next step is to think about what bigger changes we can make," she says, "like holding these polluters accountable and making them clean up their plants."
A Republican representative from Connecticut broke party ranks to organize congressional opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Three Mexican activists defended the forests of the state of Guerrero against multinational timber companies and drug traffickers. And a Florida photographer crisscrossed the United States to document 55 wildlife species, from ground squirrels to grizzlies. These were just a few of the environmentalists honored with 2005 Sierra Club Awards, most of which were presented in San Francisco on September 9 during the Club's national convention, the Sierra Summit.
Representative Nancy Johnson won the Edgar Wayburn Award, while Felipe Arreaga Sánchez, his wife, Celsa Valdovinos Ríos, and fellow activist Albertano Peñalosa Domínguez received the Chico Mendes Award. Larry Allan, who produced the photo-essay CD Keep Wild Animals in Our Lives, took home the Ansel Adams Award. The Club's top honor, the John Muir Award, went to Howard Booth for his more than 30 years of service protecting wilderness in Nevada and the Southwest, including the Red Rocks Canyon National Conservation Area.
Summit keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy Jr. received the William O. Douglas Award on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which advocates for clean water worldwide. Illinois teacher Linda Sullivan, from Lyons Township High School, snagged the Madelyn Pyeatt Award for founding the Social Action Club to educate students about the legislative process.
The remaining winners were Charlie Fredrick for organizing in the Midwest with the Sierra Student Coalition (Joseph Barbosa Earth Fund Award); Kevin Frey (Distinguished Service Award for longtime commitment to conservation); Gerry Roach (Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award); Deb Alper for her St. Paul, Minnesota, "Tour de Sprawl" bike ride (One Club Award); Timothy Logan for building a coalition to help address New York City's solid-waste problem (Environmental Alliance Award); Patrick Colgan (Oliver Kehrlein Award for service to Sierra Club Outings); Ruth Gravanis and Til Purnell (Special Service Awards); Clyde Hanson, Bettye Harris, and George Whitmore (Susan E. Miller Award for exceptional contribution to chapters); Michele Perrault (William E. Colby Award for administration); the Michigan Mackinac Chapter's Mackinac (Newsletter Award); and the Minnesota North Star Chapter for its Web site, northstar.sierraclub.org (Electronic Communication Award).
How did hundreds of environmentalists pay tribute to grassroots activism on August 6? By writing for "Every Day Matters: A Day in the Life of the Sierra Club," a Web project that offers a snapshot of their experiences. From marching in rallies to rafting the Colorado River to proposing marriage, Club members documented their adventures in essays and photos. Read these inspiring tales at sierraclubstories.org.
By Karina Kinik
A Few Good Species
The Sierra Club and the U.S. Marine Corps have joined forces to fend off a determined invader: the non-native mangrove. Every other month, volunteers from the Oahu Group and the Marines' base on Kaneohe Bay pull shoots that threaten access to training areas—and the habitat of the endangered Hawaiian stilt (above) and other native wildlife. "Us 60ish ladies think the Marines are great," says the Club's Annette Kaohelaulii. "They are in such good condition and just leap through the mud and yank those dastardly shoots." The groups' efforts have helped double the waterbird's population at the base by removing more than 25 acres of mangrove. With the right combination of cooperation and community involvement, says Diane Drigot, a natural-resources- management specialist at the base, "military readiness and conservation are totally compatible." Even the Bush administration acknowledged as much: In August, the team's 23-year effort was lauded at the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation.
Lungs' Defensive Line
Activists tackling air pollution in the Great Lakes area have a seasoned player on their team: former Green Bay Packer Jim Carter. In July, the Sierra Club's John Muir Chapter and Carter's group, Clean Wisconsin, filed a notice of intent to sue Wisconsin Public Service Corporation for federal air-quality violations. Since at least 1999, the utility's coal-fired power plant in Green Bay has emitted illegal amounts of soot and other particulate matter—which, once it enters the lungs, can lead to asthma, heart attacks, even premature death. The groups said that if improvements weren't made in 60 days, they'd sue. At press time, Club attorneys were preparing the court filings.
Earlier this year, the American Lung Association blasted Green Bay's Brown County for its asthma-triggering pollution. "Athletes like me are being put at risk by dirty power plants that pump soot and smog into the air we breathe," says ex-linebacker Carter, who's worked on environmental issues since the 1990s. Studies show that air pollution not only worsens asthma for children and adults but can also cause the disease in kids who exercise outside.
The utility admits it's exceeded permitted pollution levels—but only on occasion. "Their response amounts to 'Well, we do increase the number of people who die prematurely, but we don't do it very often,'" says Jennifer Feyerherm, a toxics specialist for the Club. If the plant used up-to-date technology, she says, it could lower its soot emissions by 90 percent.
Spotlight local Sierra Club activism by writing to Karina Kinik at Sierra, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the Sierra Club's Take Action Network at sierraclub.org/takeaction, where you can send faxes to elected officials.