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A Toxics-Free Future


Coal plant: Kalpitiya women have dangerously high mercury level

A global study has found high mercury levels in a majority of participants from the Kalpitiya Peninsula, where the Chinese-built coal-fired power station Lakvijaya is located on a sand bar between the sea and a fishing lagoon. Nearly 80 percent of those examined from the area–all women between the child-bearing ages of 18 and 44–exceeded the 1ppm (parts per million) total mercury reference. An alarming 97 percent had beyond the 0.58ppm proposed reference level. Pollutants in air and water are frequently measured in parts per million.

The main source of mercury is eating tainted fish. In Sri Lanka, both the coal-fired power plant and emissions from a cement factory had contributed mercury contamination to adjacent waterways, elevating the levels in women living nearby, the study said. Women who ate few fish, small fish or who ate fish infrequently recorded the lowest mercury levels.

“The women in this location are heavily dependent on fish for protein and most participants reported eating at least two fish meals per day or more consisting of a wide range of fish species from the [Puttalam] lagoon, which supports over a hundred species of edible fish and crustacean,” it records. “This is the highest level of fish consumption seen among any locations sampled…”

The report was published last month by the non-profit Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) and IPEN, a global coalition of health and environmental groups. The internationally recognised reference level of total mercury is 1ppm, above which the health of developing foetuses of pregnant women may be affected. Meanwhile, 0.58ppm mercury is a more recent, science-based threshold based on data indicating harmful effects at lower levels of exposure.
“A significant industrial source of mercury emissions at the location is the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant,” says the study, titled ‘Mercury Threat to Women & Children across 3 Oceans: Elevated Mercury in Women in Small Island States & Countries’.

The particular location in Kalpitiya was selected to assess the impact of Lakvijaya on local mercury exposure. All other places in the study are far from coal-fired power stations and the contamination of fish is largely attributable to distant industrial sources and artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
“As the levels among women in this location are elevated, it suggests the need for a more in-depth assessment of fish contamination levels and potential improvements that could be made to reduce industrial emissions,” researchers say.

“A cement plant is also located on the Eastern side of the lagoon and uses around 30% of the power station ash to mix with its products,” they add. “On some occasions, strong winds have resulted in large quantities of ash from stockpiles being blown across the land and lagoon.” “The cement plant also has significant emissions, which may have an impact on mercury levels in the local fish,” they observed. “The Puttalam lagoon has a large, diverse fishery that is suffering degradation from industrial effluent, agricultural run-off, rubbish-dumping and overfishing.”

The high level of fish consumption and very close proximity of two major industrial emissions sources point strongly to localised mercury contamination from industrial sources, researchers warned. Authorities should conduct further investigations to assess which fish are contaminated and to what degree, and issue advisories to assist the local population to reduce dietary exposure.

“Further, the environmental practices of the industrial plants should be closely reviewed, and all efforts taken to ensure they operate according to Best Environmental Practices (BEP) using Best Available Techniques (BAT),” they recommended. The results from the Sri Lankan location at Puttalam lagoon were significantly elevated, with a mean of 2.74ppm ± 2.8ppm (fw). “Of all women who participated in the sampling, 77% had a body burden of mercury exceeding the 1ppm reference level,” it was found.

“In addition, 97% of the women had a level over the proposed 0.58ppm reference level,” it said. “Of great concern is that 50% of the women had a level that exceeded 2ppm Hg and 13% exceeded 4ppm Hg.” Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury. Participants in the study were 757 women of child-bearing age from 24 locations in 21 countries. Mercury is a health threat to women and the developing foetus. It is a potent neurotoxin, especially to the developing brain, and can affect the developing foetus months after the mother’s exposure.

The harmful effects that can be passed from the mother to the foetus include neurological impairment, IQ loss, and damage to the kidneys and cardiovascular system. At high levels of mercury exposure this can lead to brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures and the inability to speak. While researchers have studied mercury body burden in specific regions of the world, information on developing and transition countries is lacking.
Coal-fired power plant emissions are known to have long-range pollution impacts, but the study also notes that local impacts from these power stations are relevant. The study urged Governments to stop emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources and implement renewable energy.

Currently the estimated number of coal-fired power stations globally is around 3,700; however, there are proposals or construction underway for an additional 1600 facilities, increasing global coal power capacity by 43%.