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Fish caught locally flunk mercury test
Catch fails safety standards in 66 Illinois waterways

Thursday, July 06, 2006
Glencoe News
by JOHN ROSZKOWSKI | STAFF WRITER

Allison Neumeister used to fish Illinois waterways during camping trips with her father when she was a child. She remembers catching smallmouth bass, crappie, walleye and trout.
"We'd catch the fish and fry it over a campfire," said Neumeister. "We would eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It was a delicacy. It was clearly a staple growing up."
But Neumeister, who now lives in Lake Forest, said she now is reluctant to eat fish caught in Illinois because of concerns about mercury pollution.
"I wouldn't eat fish caught in Illinois waters and I certainly wouldn't feed them to my kids," said Neumeister.
Neumeister is a volunteer for Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), which recently released a report which shows her concerns about eating fish from local waterways may be warranted.
Public health risks
The report, entitled "Risky Fishing: Power Plant Mercury Pollution and Illinois Sports Fish," found that in 66 of 145 lakes, rivers and streams in Illinois that were studied, the average mercury concentrations exceeded the U.S. EPA's safe limit of .13 parts per million for women of average weight who eat fish twice a week.
Some local waterways making the list of 66 were the McKinley Park, Sherman Park, Marquette Park, Humbodlt Park and Skokie lagoons, the Midlothian Reservoir, Arrowhead Lake and Sedgwick Lake in Cook County; Channel Lake in Lake County; and Lake in the Hills in McHenry County.
Lake Michigan also had average mercury concentrations in fish samples above the EPA standards, the report found.
Max Mueller, the report's author and an environmental advocate for Environment Illinois, the environmental arm of Illinois PIRG, said the report also found that 39 percent of fish samples caught in the state exceeded the EPA safe mercury limit for women, and the average mercury concentration exceeded the safe limit in half of the 32 fish species included in the studies.
Fish species found to have the highest average mercury concentrations were bigmouth buffalo, freshwater drum, striped bass, lake trout, spotted bass, sauger, smallmouth buffalo, spotted sucker, flathead catfish, largemouth bass, brown trout, Chinook salmon, white bass, channel catfish, carp and white sucker.
"Mercury pollution is endangering this important dietary staple and we think that's a serious public health problem," he said. He noted that the American Heart Association and Food and Drug Administration recommend eating fish as part of a healthy diet.
Mueller said mercury poisoning is of greatest concern for women of child bearing age, unborn fetuses and children under the age of six who are in the early stages of development. It can lead to neurological problems, developmental delays, impaired motor skills and low IQ levels, he said.
When mercury reaches a body of water, it can react with bacteria and other compounds in the water to create a highly toxic "methylmercury," said Mark Pfister, associate director of environmental health for the Lake County Health Department. This methylmercury moves up the aquatic food chain and is found in all of the tissue and body parts of contaminated fish, he said. Cleaning or cooking of the fish by humans does not remove the harmful mercury, Pfister said.
Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, said mercury pollution in fish caught in Lake Michigan is a serious concern.
"Mercury in Lake Michigan is one of the most serious public health issues in our country today," he said. "It hurts the most sensitive groups among us. It hurts children, unborn fetuses, women and low-income people who fish for subsistence living."
Trudy Wakeman, director of parks and recreation for the village of Lake in the Hills in McHenry County, said she was surprised when the state put their lake on the list. She said the last tests for mercury in fish in Lake in the Hills were conducted in 2004 and she thinks it will be removed after new testing is done in 2007.
"I think it's a one-time occurrence," she said. "We're not near any large manufacturing or industrial areas."
Power plants
The Illinois PIRG report blames pollution from Illinois' 21 coal-fired power plants as a major source of mercury pollution in the area's waterways.
"Coal-fired plants are by far the largest source of human-created mercury emissions. Illinois' 21 coal-fired power plants are the source of an estimated 71 percent of in-state mercury pollution," the report states.
But officials with the power industry say that while mercury is a problem, power plants are not the major cause.
Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, operates several coal-fired plants in the region, including one in Waukegan, one in Joliet, two in Chicago and one in Romeoville.
Doug McFarland, vice-president of public affairs for Midwest Generation, said "there are going to be significant reductions in (mercury) emissions over the next several years" because of new regulations by the U.S. EPA. He said the new regulations will reduce power plant emissions by 40 percent by 2010 and by 70 percent by 2018.
"Midwest Generation is testing new technology for reducing mercury pollution," he said. "We understand that mercury is a serious issue and we intend to be a leader in developing solutions."
But McFarland said coal-fired plants account for only a very small percentage of the total mercury found in the environment. "Most of the mercury in the United States and in Illinois comes from naturally occurring sources or industrial pollution that's (from) overseas," he said.
Pfister, of the Lake County Health Department, agrees with the report that coal-fired plants are a major source of the mercury that's contaminating the region's waterways. He said the Illinois EPA has proposed even tougher standards than the federal government that would reduce emissions from coal-fired plants by 90 percent by 2010.
Pfister said the Lake County Board last month voted to endorse a resolution supporting a reduction in all sources of mercury pollution in the county. He noted that many common household products, such as fluorescent lamps, old light switches and thermostats also contain mercury. He encourages residents to properly dispose of these items during household hazardous waste collections rather than in the landfills to prevent mercury from getting into the environment and the water supply, he said.


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