Study shows Pacific women at high risk for mercury poisoning

A study jointly conducted by IPEN and the Biodiversity Research Institute found elevated levels of mercury in women from small island states and countries ranging across the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean. 

The study sampled 757 women between the ages of 18 and 44, from 21 different territories and countries including Fiji, Barbados, Comoros, Sri Lanka, the islands of Molokai, and Saint Lawrence. Researchers gathered samples of hair from each of the women and testing indicated abnormally high levels of mercury in their bodies. Nearly 60% of the women sampled “had elevated mercury levels measuring over 1 ppm, the US EPA health advisory level above which brain damage, IQ loss, and kidney and cardiovascular damage may occur.” Additionally, “75% of women in the 21-island sample measured above 0.58 ppm of mercury, a level associated with the onset of fetal neurological damage.”

Mercy Ritte, one of the study’s coordinators in Molokai, said in an IPEN press release “I was pregnant during the study, as were a number of other women in my community,” Ritte said as quoted in the statement. “It is unfair that we are suffering here on our tiny little island because governments far away are not ending toxic coal energy, when we all could be using renewable resources.” High levels of mercury exposure not only harm Pacific Island women, but their children too. Mercury’s effects can be passed down to children in the forms of neurological impairment, IQ loss, harm to the cardiovascular system, and harm to the kidneys.

According to IPEN’s report, “The majority of sampled women of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean have elevated mercury body burden above the US EPA reference level, primarily due to contamination of their fish-rich diet.” The report attributed the contamination to “Distant air emissions of mercury from sources such as coal-fired power plants and mercury use in small-scale gold mining contaminate ocean fish that serve as a primary protein source for SIDS populations. SIDS are impacted by the negative consequences of these polluting activities yet receive none of the benefits.”

Lead author of the study and IPEN Mercury Policy Advisor, Lee Bell, said “There are many substitutes for all mercury uses and no need to use it any longer in any industrial process or product. It is no longer a necessary commodity.” 

IPEN’s Co-Chair, Pam Miller, said in the recent press statement that “This study presents stark evidence that mercury pollution poses an immediate threat to a significant portion of the world’s population. Over 66 million people live on small islands, and they are facing a double-edged crisis from coal-based energy. Their homes are threatened with flooding as climate change causes sea levels to rise, while their food supply is increasingly contaminated with mercury from coal burning emissions. There must be no further delays. We need to end the coal economy now and transition to safe energy sources.”

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Suzanna DeCosta

Digital Journalist Intern, Pacific Environment Weekly

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