Fayette County

Sierra Club to test hair for mercury during art fair

The Sierra Club wants a hank of your hair. Especially if you are a woman of child-bearing age. And eat a lot of fish.

Club members will have a booth near the Woodland Art Fair Sunday to collect hair for mercury testing.

Why mercury? It can cause nerve and brain damage in children under 6. It also can be passed from expectant mothers to unborn children, and to infants through breast milk.

Hair can contain traces of mercury that is excreted from the body. One way mercury gets into the body is from eating certain kinds of large fish. One way it gets into fish is from man-made pollution, including emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury spewed into the air drifts down in small particles, or comes down with the rain. When it hits water, it reacts with bacteria to change into a substance called methylmercury. The methylmercury is absorbed by one-celled plants and animals and enters the food chain.

By the time it reaches larger predator fish, it can reach worrisome levels.

”We're finding that mercury in hair is very closely related to fish consumption,“ said Steven Patch, director of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina -- Asheville.

The institute will test the hair samples collected in Lexington. Since 2003, it has tested more than 15,000 samples, Patch said.

The testing has found no correlation between mercury levels and other possible exposures to mercury, including tooth fillings. Surprisingly, it found lower levels of mercury in the Midwest, a region with plenty of coal-fired plants.

Patch speculated that that might have more to do with fish-eating habits than the location of the plants.

Information on power plants and state and regional fish advisories will be available at the Sierra Club booth, said Lane Boldman, an officer in the club's Bluegrass Group.

A professional hair cutter will take samples of hair about an inch long and as thick as a pencil. There will be no charge for the test, which usually costs $25.

Kentucky is one of more than 20 states have mercury advisories that cover all streams, rivers and lakes.

The state's advisory has been in place since April 2000. Women of child-bearing age and children under six should eat no more than one meal a week of freshwater fish.

Women and young children also are advised not to eat salt-water fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because of high mercury levels.

But health officials say a well-balanced diet that contains fish can contribute to a healthy heart and help children grow and develop.

Results from Sunday's tests, which are confidential, will be sent directly to the person who supplied the sample.

If the test shows a high level of mercury, there will be advice on how to lower it.

Lab manager Diane Morgan summed up the advice this way: ”Quit eating so much fish — fish that is high in mercury.“