WASHINGTON – An analysis of several studies conducted among Latinos reveal that this community faces a disproportionate risk from toxic mercury pollution because of a combination of cultural, economic and linguistic factors.
The analysis – based largely on previously unreleased data from the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi's 2008 National Survey of Latinos on the Environment – provides new evidence that toxic mercury pollution, which primarily comes from coal-fired plants, constitutes a clear and present danger to the health of the Latino community.
"Hispanics in the United States should be especially concerned about the fish that they catch, since many local waterways have high levels of mercury pollution," said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi. "Even though the study was conducted in the last 36 months, the findings are still relevant because these are habits and attitudes that generally do not change greatly over time."
According to the previously unpublished sections of the Sierra Club survey, 31 percent of Latinos fish regularly, and 76 percent of those eat and share what they catch with their families. These families include young children and women of childbearing age, the two most vulnerable population sectors to mercury poisoning.
By far the country’s largest mercury source is coal-fired power plants, which in 2009 alone spewed more than 130,000 pounds of this toxin into the environment. Mercury poisoning occurs by ingesting contaminated fish. The mercury is brought down by rain onto waterways, where it becomes its most toxic version, methyl-mercury. The fish absorb it and so do humans by ingesting the fish.
"Dirty coal-fired power plants threaten everyone's health, and this new analysis shows that Hispanics in the United States are at an even higher risk," said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "The Environmental Protection Agency can help clean up everyone's air and water and protect our children's health by adopting protections against mercury and other air pollution."
Exposure to mercury in utero can contribute to birth defects including neurological and developmental disorders, learning disabilities, delayed onset of walking and talking, and cerebral palsy. At least 1 in 12, and as many as 1 in 6 American women have enough mercury in their bodies to put a baby at risk. That means that over 300,000 babies are born each year at risk of mercury poisoning.
A study conducted by the University of California-Davis titled, "Fishing for Justice or Just Fishing," revealed that Hispanic anglers fish close to their urban communities because of a lack of transportation options. The fish caught in urban areas tend to contain the highest concentrations of mercury contamination.
And this exposure is already showing high levels of mercury contamination among Hispanic anglers. According to another University of California-Davis study, Hispanic anglers in California on average ingest 13.9 micrograms of mercury per day via fish they catch, mostly in local waters. This is almost twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe limit.
The "Fishing for Justice or Just Fishing" study also found that this problem is compounded by several factors, the most important being the fact that fish advisories and warning signs posted near waterways are very rarely in Spanish.
On March 16, the EPA proposed a strong national air quality standard to protect Americans against life-threatening air pollution such as mercury, arsenic and other air toxics from power plants, which are currently allowed to emit this hazardous pollution without national limits. Dirty coal-fired power plants are the number one source of mercury pollution in the United States, emitting more than 130,000 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in the year 2009 alone, according to Environment America.
The Sierra Club and thousands of Americans are asking the EPA to adopt strong federal protections to keep Big Coal and corporate polluters from making us sick. A strong national air toxics safeguard will protect public health, prevent disease and avoid hospitalizations, all while creating new jobs installing and operating air pollution control equipment. According to the EPA, the new protection will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma annually.