Citizens take charge of their health, test for toxic mercury

This blog was written by Eriqah Foreman Williams with input from Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | October 21, 2011 | Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities

On Saturday October 15, free burgers, beautiful weather, and a high school marching band drew Covington, GA residents to an unusual event – a community health fair, including free mercury testing courtesy of SACE. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy partnered with Quad J’s Hair Salon, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Newton County, and the Newton County Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to host the fair in the area served by Snapping Shoals EMC, an electric utility co-op that proposes to build two new coal plants in rural Georgia. Coal plants are the biggest source of the mercury that makes Georgia’s fish too toxic to eat – but most people aren’t aware of just how much mercury impacts their lives.

“A lot of people in Georgia don’t realize how much mercury we ingest and get in our systems. I think if people knew, they would be appalled – and they would never let another mercury-spewing coal plant get built in our state.” – Eriqah Foreman Williams, Georgia Coal Diversity Organizer

On Saturday, 20 brave women volunteered to have their hair tested to determine their mercury levels. Many of the women pay their electricity bills to Snapping Shoals EMC, and are therefore members of the utility co-op. In other words, they are owners with a stake in EMC decisions. The volunteers signed postcards urging EMC decision-makers to drop plans for the proposed coal plants, Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill.

A Quad J's hairdresser snips a small sample of SACE organizer Amelia Shenstone's hair
A Quad J’s hairdresser snips a small sample of SACE organizer Amelia Shenstone’s hair

Like many of the health issues that local groups screened for at the fair, illnesses caused by coal pollution disproportionately plague low-income communities and communities of color. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin emitted by coal plants, can cause a variety of health problems, from learning disorders to a lack of muscular coordination. If an expectant mother has high mercury levels in her body, the toxin can cause decreased intelligence and learning disorders in her child. Humans are exposed when mercury from power plant smokestacks accumulates in watersheds, and enters our bodies through the fish we eat.

People who eat local fish are particularly at risk. Many African Americans are avid fishermen, and they’re more likely to eat what they catch. They are generally less aware of health advisories than their white counterparts. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that mercury pollution has the biggest impact on low-income white populations and low-income African-Americans in the Southeast;  low-income women and Hispanics are disproportionately affected nationally. EPA found that low-income, Southeastern African-Americans are particularly at risk, and may lose as many as 12 IQ points due to mercury exposure.

Studies show that the coal plants proposed by Snapping Shoals EMC, Cobb EMC, and a handful of other utility co-ops will not only increase exposure to mercury pollution, but will also contribute to numerous other ill health effects. The pollution from burning coal is known to cause asthma, heart disease, and lung disease, and these effects are most common in low-income communities of color because coal plants tend to be located in close proximity. For example, according to the Clean Air Task Force, African-American children are rushed to the emergency room three times more often than white children due to asthma attacks, and are also more likely to live near a coal-fired plant.

“Most of the coal-powered plants are being built in areas inhabited by low-income and/or minority populations, where the people have a limited voice in expressing how the polluted emissions can be detrimental to their health. If we continue to build coal-powered plants around the state, what health effects will it cause on our minority populations, who are already perplexed with getting quality health care and services?” – Dr. Gwendolyn Cattledge, President, Newton County Georgia NAACP

To learn more about disproportionate impacts of dirty energy please visit SACE’s Learn About page. To help stop new coal Plants Washington and Ben Hill, please click here.

A big thank you to our hair sample technicians!
A big thank you to our hair sample technicians!
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