CHARLESTON -- Perry White doesn't eat the fish he catches in the state's rivers and lakes since finding out from a test four years ago that his body contained elevated levels of poisonous mercury.
The Horry County firefighter said it's unfortunate that many others across the state will not learn if they have elevated mercury and take action to reduce it. That's because health officials gave up on a proposed major statewide campaign to reduce the amount of mercury in the environment and determine the extent of health risk to those who eat fish from South Carolina's rivers and lakes.
The officials say severe budget cuts due to the recession forced them to drop the plans. The campaign was envisioned two years ago as an extensive epidemiological study to discover the extent of harm mercury has caused, especially in areas of the Lowcountry and in the Pee Dee.
Thom Berry, spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said, "Obviously we're not doing as much as we'd like."
Instead, health officials are working on a vastly pared-down effort that, so far, has tested only 100 people to determine their exposure to mercury. The state also is conducting a statewide telephone survey to get a handle on how many people have been exposed to potentially dangerous levels of mercury from eating freshwater fish.
In addition, the state is mailing questionnaires to women who recently gave birth to gauge the potential impact of mercury on young children.
POLLUTERS SHOULD BE LIABLE
Perry said he understands that the state might not have enough money to do extensive testing, and he credits health officials for posting periodic warnings about eating specific types of fish in certain rivers. But he's upset that the state isn't doing enough to stop the mercury pollution that's being pumped into the air every day from coal-fired factories and electric power plants, among the main sources of mercury pollution.
"I think they should be held liable," Perry said.
That mercury returns to the earth in rain and gathers in rivers and lakes, where it ends up in the fish that people eat.
Fish contaminated with mercury have been found in more than 1,700 miles of the state's rivers, with the most contaminated areas along the coastal plain. Health Department tests of fish caught in the Edisto River and near the confluence of the Great Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee rivers have shown some of the highest concentrations of mercury in the state.
Instead of conducting extensive tests on people, state health officials set up two clinics, one in Florence and one in Lake City, where volunteers can walk in and have their blood tested for mercury. Of the 100 people who have been tested since the pared-down effort began in late 2009, two showed levels of mercury higher than that considered elevated by the Environmental Protection Agency, Berry said. That level is 5.8 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood.
Concern about the ill effects of mercury on people who eat fish from the state's rivers and streams heightened after a (Charleston) Post and Courier investigative series, called "The Mercury Connection," was published in October 2007. The series revealed that many such people tested by the newspaper showed elevated levels of mercury in their bodies.
Elevated mercury can cause heart and neurological disorders and impair the mental and physical development of children. Reporters for the newspaper traveled to some of the most contaminated stretches of river, cut hair samples from people who had eaten fish from those places and sent the samples to a lab to test for mercury.
The newspaper series also revealed that even though state health officials had tested mercury levels in fish for years, they had never tested people to determine if the state had a health problem from the poisonous heavy metal.
FISHING FOR FUN NOW
Perry was one of the people tested. He said he now just fishes for fun.
"I was tested. That's why I've cut eating fish."
A person's body can get rid of mercury, if the amount of contaminated fish is eliminated or reduced.
Berry said the Florence and Lake City clinics are still taking volunteers. In addition, he said, state residents can go to a private physician to get their blood checked and the Health Department will analyze it for a $19 charge.
Despite the budget cutbacks, which slashed $40 million from the Health Department in 2009, Berry pointed to "a couple of things we are doing" to maximize the state's pared-down mercury efforts.
The agency added mercury-related questions to the state's version of an ongoing nationwide telephone survey conducted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That survey involves behavioral risk assessment, so health officials added questions about fish consumption in an effort to get a handle on how extensive the health risk from mercury might be in South Carolina, Berry said.
So far, some 10,000 people in the state have been surveyed. The survey is still under way, and health officials hope it will provide a "better picture as to what numbers we may be facing," Berry said.
The state also is mailing a questionnaire to women who have recently given birth to determine their exposure to mercury. Even small amounts of mercury can cause developmental and neurological problems in children, especially while they are in the womb, experts say. So far, 1,965 surveys have been mailed and 896 returned, Berry said. Results are pending.
State environment and health officials also are conducting mercury tests this year on fish caught in small ponds.
In addition health officials are working with the state dental association to encourage the collection and recycling of dental fillings containing mercury that have been removed from patients.