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Utah to Study Mercury Levels in Fish

Utah to Study Mercury Levels in Fish

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah officials are gearing up for a major study of mercury levels in the state's fish.

Officials from the state's Water Quality and Wildlife Resources divisions will meet this week with a state health lab epidemiologist to decide how to do the science that could determine health advisories, says Water Quality chief Walt Baker.

Earlier this month, the state reported four of 170 fish taken from state waterways contained mercury levels exceeding federal standards. But that small sample isn't enough for environmental protection officials to draw any conclusions on the effects mercury contamination may be having in Utah. Baker says Utah officials will have to weigh issues of how to design the research, how extensive warnings are issued and the effects on public health, as well as the nutritional needs of those who consume the fish.

"What is the breadth of information we need -- how much data to establish a fish advisory?" he said. "I'm going to rely heavily on the Health Department to let them do the heavy lifting on that."

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment, but is also released by coal-fired power plants and can come to Utah from as far away as China. In addition, areas of Utah are downwind from gold-mining operations in Nevada that produce 9 percent or more of the mercury released in the United States.

Mercury falls to the Earth in rain and accumulates in the muscle of fish. It affects the human nervous system, and is most harmful to fetuses and young children because it can cause developmental and neurological problems. Recent studies have linked mercury exposure to autism, Alzheimer's disease and increased risk of heart disease in men.

In the West, only Utah and Wyoming don't have mercury-related fish advisories.

Wayne Ball, a toxicologist and program manager for the Utah Health Department's environmental epidemiology program, says funding problems have prevented more extensive studies in the past.

"The limited data we have to date indicate it's not an issue, but we all realize that's limited data and more testing needs to be done," he said.

That testing is expensive. Though Ball isn't sure what the mercury assessments would cost, he says testing for arsenic cost $400 per fish. Mercury tests would be at least as expensive. To be statistically reliable, the lab would have to assess at least five fish per species per weight range to have a reliable statistical sample, he says.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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