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fish came from, how big they are, what phase of the moon they were caught in….” Laurel I. Cahill, a spokeswoman for Alcoa, says that the company has indeed assessed the impact of mercury contamination on both the commercial interests and health of area residents. In a lengthy e-mail response to questions from the Observer, Cahill wrote that “estimated mercury intake” for commercial fishermen and their families had been compared to EPA guidelines. “It was concluded that for women of childbearing age,” she stated, “there is a low potential risk from exposure to mercury in fish from Lavaca Bay and this risk is below a level of concern?’ She referred to a “door-todoor interview process conducted by TDH in 1996 [that] concluded that the Vietnamese shrimpersa potential local subsistence population were not at risk because their activities generally occur outside of Lavaca Bay.” Dr. John Villanacci was in charge of public health assessment at TDH at the time and has a different take on the survey. Villanacci says that when members of his staff tried to do interviews in the Vietnamese community, which had the highest consumption of fish, they ran up against a wall of silence. “Nobody would admit to eating anything from the banned area:’ he says, adding that he suspects people were afraid to admit consuming fish from the bay because they would also be admitting to breaking the law. From the health department’s standpoint, he says, that left nothing to investigate. No exposed population, no tests. But in tiny fishing communities nothing is ever quite so simple. The state does attempt to warn residents of health hazards by posting large signs, written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, at various points around the bay. The signs read “Health Warning! DO NOT eat crabs or fish caught in the closure area of the bay,” and display a map and further information about the danger of mercury contamination and a $500 fine for those caught with seafood. Many in the fishing communities, however, see those signs as just more unwarranted intrusion from the Austin bureaucrats who have enacted regulations and restrictions that have caused problems for commercial fishing. They say that people may have known that mercury was there, but still didn’t think there was anything wrong with eating seafood from the bay. Moreover, it was impossible to take the ban seriously, says Dennis Williams. “So they say the fish are safe on one side and not on the other?” he asks. “Like fish don’t move around:’ Many locals avoided the topic altogether. “People didn’t want to do anything to hurt the fishing,” says Donna Sue Williams, who formerly managed fish houses in the town of Seadrift. “So they didn’t talk about it. It was always sort of hush-hushf If that seems shortsighted, it’s also indicative of an atmosphere of independence, secrecy, and a general distrust of outsiders in the fishing communities. But times are definitely changing. Nearly 1,000 area residents have signed up to participate in a lawsuit against Alcoa, according to Jim Cole, a continued on page 19 LINKS IN THE MERCURY FOOD CHAIN Mercury enters our food supply from contaminated water. ‘Whether companies dump mercury into air or water, it ends up in the waterfresh and saltwhere bacteria convert it to methylinercury that accumulates in algae. That algae is’eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by larger fish. The concentration of methylxnercury in fish that are higher in the aquatic food chain, such as red and black drum and spotted sea trout, can be as high as a million times the concentration of the surrounding water. “The bottom line in all this is that the latest sampling from this year shows some fish and shell fish from the Lavaca Bay area are high enough that if you eat a modest amount of them per week you’ll be getting an unsafe dose of mercury; ‘ Texas A&M professor emeritus Dr. B. J. Presley. Unfortunately you are not safe if you just avoid Lavaca Bay seafood. Our state is allowing coal-burning utilities to produce so much mercury that Texas now leads the nation in methylrnercury levels. An estimated one-third of the state’s freshwater fish is contaminated by this heavy metal. Media attention has focused on mercury’s toxic effects on infants. But mercury also injures the neurological systems and brains of adults, although the symptoms may not appear for decades. According to National Environmental Defense Fund study \(August, a range of problems including memory loss, behavioral changes, tremors, headaches, and even hair loss. Now, however, newer studies reveal that people with elevated levels of mercury are more likely to have cardiovascular disease. Most devastating of all, however are mercury’s effects on fetuses and infants. In low doses, the element may affect a child’s developmentdelaying walking and talking, shortening attention spans, lowering intelligence levels and causing learning disabilities. In higher amounts, mercury is being linked to autism, according to a growing number of reports. A common assumption is that the mothers of these children must have been exposed to extraordinarily high amounts of mercury, but even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is often conservative in its predictions, reports that this is not necessarily the case. “Minimally affected mothers have given birth to severely affected infants,” warns a 1998 EPA report. The latest EPA advisory uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its estimation that more than 300,000 infants who “may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in utero exposure to rnethylmercury” are born each year. D.C. JULY 8, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11