April 9, 2009

Human Mercury Testing

Mercury in the Pee Dee: Activists hope to ‘inspire’ DHEC to test residents for deadly toxin
The State
Thursday, Apr 9, 2009
By JOHN MONKjmonk@thestate.com

FLORENCE — Snip! Snip! were the sounds of hair samples being taken Wednesday at a Florence barber shop to dramatize a plea from doctors, environmentalists and residents who want the state’s environmental agency to test locals for mercury poisoning.

To spotlight the inability or unwillingness of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to do tests, the activists are paying the $25 each to test the hair of 20 Florence County residents, starting with five who got haircuts Wednesday.

“I’m hoping this exercise today will shed light on the truth that there is mercury out there, and we don’t want more,” said Dr. Weave Whitehead, 38, a lifelong Florence area resident, pediatrician and S.C. Wildlife Federation board member.

Whitehead is one of several local doctors speaking out against a proposed $2.2 billion power plant slated for a rural area laced with rivers in southern Florence County.

The plant, sought by utility Santee Cooper, will emit 93 pounds of mercury in gas form each year — mercury many fear will settle in area rivers and then in fish locals love to eat.

Already throughout the Pee Dee, many fish are off-limits due to high mercury concentrations. Even tiny amounts of mercury can cause brain damage and harm children and unborn babies.
“The hair samples will be sent to a nationally certified lab,” said John Ramsburgh, director of the Sierra Club of South Carolina. Results will be made public, but he could not say when.

The doctors first asked DHEC to do the testing in fall 2007 after tests done by The (Charleston) Post and Courier found people with high levels of mercury.

The Sierra Club is paying for these tests. The S.C. Wildlife Federation also backs the tests.
“DHEC has not adequately addressed this issue,” said Dr. Kenneth Kammer, 61, a Florence neurosurgeon for 29 years.

Within a half-hour at Jay’s Top Notch Cuts, five people had thick locks of hair cut from the back of their heads. Barber Jay Alexander, 35, normally charges $15 for haircuts, but he cut free of charge to help out, he said.

DHEC announced last summer it would conduct mercury testing in some parts of South Carolina. But Wednesday, a spokesman said plans for testing are on hold.

Drastic state budget cuts earlier this year — some $34 million has been slashed since last summer — forced DHEC to cancel plans to spend an initial $100,000 for tests, a spokesman said.
DHEC asked the Legislature for $800,000 for the testing next fiscal year, but the House of Representatives recently cut that money, Thom Berry said. Berry said DHEC is working to restore that funding.

Berry declined to comment on Wednesday’s event.

The folks in and near the barber chair shared their thoughts, however.

“I am worried about what the results will be,” said Terry Cook, 44, who lives next to the 2,700-acre proposed plant site near Pamplico on the Great Pee Dee River.

“The important thing is to get enough and go right down to the scalp,” said Emily Jackson, 28, who grabbed a lock of Cook’s hair as the barber cut it. Jackson took the lock, wrapped it in yellow paper and put it in a plastic sandwich-type bag.

Publicly taking hair samples to dramatize environmental pollution is a tactic used by the Sierra Club and activists elsewhere.

Asked whether the Sierra Club and the doctors are trying to embarrass DHEC, Ramsburgh smiled and said, “We are trying to inspire DHEC.”

Efforts to reach Santee Cooper officials were unsuccessful. They have stressed the new plant will filter far more mercury than any of their existing plants. Utility officials also say mercury in local rivers probably comes from many sources other than power plants alone.

Whitehead, the doctor, is especially concerned that two public schools with hundreds of children are within a mile or so of the proposed power plant site.

“Children are particularly susceptible to air toxins,” he said.

No date has been set to start building the power plant, which in addition to mercury will emit thousands of pounds of particulate matter and other noxious substances each year. DHEC has approved the major air emissions permit for the plant. Environmental groups say they will appeal that approval this month.

Ramsburgh acknowledged the activists’ effort is modest.

“We know what is needed is a robust and comprehensive testing program,” he said. “We asked DHEC for that for over a year.”

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