Study: Mercury-laden rain poses risk

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - An environmental group surveyed the rainfall in Cleveland and found mercury levels that averaged eight times the limit set by the government as safe for surface water.

The National Wildlife Federation study was based on rainwater samples taken between Oct. 21 and Dec. 11. Earlier testing in other Midwest cities also found elevated mercury levels in rainfall.

While the rainwater may be sending mercury into the food chain through fish, the federation didn't seek to make that scientific connection, according to Mike Murray, a federation staff scientist.

Drinking or touching rainwater with such levels of mercury is safe, but eating fish where mercury can become concentrated can be unhealthy, Murray said Wednesday.

The connection between mercury in rainwater and fish seemed obvious to Marnie Urso, 28, a nursing mother who works with the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.

"Obviously, the rain gets into the water and it's part of the cycle," said Urso, who avoids fish because she nurses her 7-month-old daughter.

The state of Ohio already issues an array of fish-eating restrictions.

Seven years ago the state warned people to eat no more than one meal a week from fish caught anywhere in Ohio. In December, the state issued a more restrictive warning that women of childbearing age and young children should eat only one meal of fish monthly from 15 Ohio rivers and lakes.

Linda Fee Oros, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the rain-surface level comparison could be misleading because it doesn't take into account the diluting of rain when it hits a river or lake.

She said mercury in rainfall was a concern but measurements aren't taken by the agency. In addition, she said the agency hadn't reviewed the federation's findings, "So there isn't whole lot we can say about what they have done."

The U.S. EPA is considering limits on mercury emissions. Mercury in fish is of special concern to women who are pregnant, nursing or may become pregnant because it can affect the developing brain and nervous system of their children.

Vita Kujauskas, who has run Lake Erie fishing charter trips out of Cleveland for 10 years, said fishermen are aware of the various advisories.

"They know about it. We do tell them about it if they don't know," he said.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife offered this advice to limit exposure to fish contaminants: eat only skinned and boned fish, removing as much fat as possible.

The federation said coal-fired power plants are the top source of mercury air emissions in the United States. It urged stricter government requirements on updating anti-pollution equipment.

"The (fish) warnings aren't going to protect people. What will protect people is getting mercury out of our food chain," Urso said.

Ellen Raines, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy Corp., which operates coal-power plants in Ohio, said the utility supports improved pollution controls and has backed a mercury-control technology demonstration project. The utility needs time to find commercially feasible mercury emission controls that are cost-effective, Raines said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)