April 8, 2009

Mercury Testing in Florence

Doctors to test Pee Dee residents for mercury
By Doug Pardue
The Post and Courier
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A group of physicians in Florence plans to start testing Pee Dee residents today for mercury because state health officials have not launched a promised statewide effort to find out if the toxic pollutant in the state's rivers poses a health hazard.

The physicians called for statewide testing two years ago after The Post and Courier did its own tests and discovered that many people who eat fish from the state's mercury-contaminated rivers have elevated levels of the toxic heavy metal in their bodies.

For years, state health and environmental officials have tested for mercury and have discovered elevated levels in fish in 1,700 miles of the state's rivers and lakes. The State Department of Health and Environmental Control regularly issues warnings about eating fish caught in some areas, but has never systematically tested people to determine if their health is endangered.
Last year state health officials said they planned to launch a mercury study and human testing program.

The state's proposed testing program fell victim to the recession and state budget cuts. Thom Berry, a spokesman for DHEC, said the agency had performed preliminary work on the study with the University of South Carolina and had set aside upward of $100,000 "as our part to begin the project." However, he said, the money disappeared with the budget cuts.

Berry said the health department hopes to get money in this year's budget, and listed $800,000 for the study as part of its "critical needs." Still, he said, "We fear that funding may not be available and we may have to make even deeper reductions due to cuts in our state funds."
John Ramsburgh, chapter director with the Sierra Club of South Carolina which is working with the Florence physicians, said the group decided to do the testing because the state had shirked its "mission to protect the public health."

He said the doctors plan to test about 20 people in Florence, and possibly expand to Conway.
The area between Florence and Conway near the merger of the Great Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee rivers was identified by The Post and Courier as "the mercury triangle" because fish in rivers there contained the highest levels of mercury in the state.

Concern over mercury pollution in the Pee Dee has heightened as Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company, continues efforts to get clearance to build a new coal-fired power plant in Florence County. Coal-fired power plants are among the biggest contributors to mercury pollution.

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that, even in tiny amounts, can cause numerous health problems, including disrupted brain development in children.

Florence pediatrician Weave Whitehead, one of the doctors participating in the Florence testing, said in a statement, "We need to get a better sense of the potential health risks posed by this coal plant for the people of this region, particularly its impacts on vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women and the elderly."

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