The local chapter said all of the 70 Minnesotans who agreed to share their test results had at least some mercury in their hair.
The fight over air pollution from coal-fired power plants is taking place in Washington, D.C., for the most part -- a debate that pits money against health.
But the proof could be in your hair.
The Sierra Club made that point Wednesday when it released results of mercury testing it conducted last month in 25 American cities, including Minneapolis and Rochester. The local chapter said all of the 70 Minnesotans who agreed to share their test results had at least some mercury in their hair. And nine had levels higher than the federal limit recommended for children and women of childbearing age -- though that would not be a health risk for men and older women.
The environmental group said the campaign is designed to draw attention to practical consequences of a new federal proposal to regulate mercury and other pollutants emitted from coal-burning electric generating plants.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time set a national standard for such emissions, a rule that could force the closing of some older power plants and that is under challenge by utilities and Republicans in Congress.
None of the problem plants is in Minnesota. A 2006 state law requires utilities to reduce mercury emissions, and three of the largest units already have installed scrubbing equipment that has reduced them by 90 percent. Three more are on track to do the same, state pollution officials said.
Still, air currents can disperse mercury widely, and much of what lands in Minnesota comes from plants elsewhere.
Federal officials estimate compliance with the new rules would cost about $10 billion annually, though some in the industry say it could be higher, with household utility bills eventually rising by $3 or $4 per month. But the health and environmental benefits would reach more than $100 billion a year, officials said.
The Sierra Club, one of many national environmental groups advocating for the new rule, said its hair testing campaign was not intended to be a scientific analysis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 3 percent of women of childbearing age have mercury levels exceeding 5.8 micrograms per liter, the top limit considered safe. For hair, it's 1.2 parts per million, though officials from the Minnesota Department of Health said hair testing is not always a reliable measure.
The federal limit was designed to protect children and fetuses because they are very sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury -- a heavy metal -- and the limit was designed to err on the side of safety. The safe level for men and older women is three times as high.
"We don't want to restrict men and [other] women to low levels," said Pat McCann, an expert on mercury exposure with the Minnesota Department of Health.
But the advocacy campaign did have its desired affect on some Minnesotans.
Mark O'Byrne of Rochester said he, his wife, Elena and their 2-year-old daughter all had their hair tested, and found they were all below 1.2 parts per million. They decided to be tested because they were concerned about amalgam teeth fillings that contain mercury. But they had no idea that coal plants are the primary source of mercury pollution, he said.
"It gave us pause to think about what kind of mercury we are exposed to in our community," he said. "This is not something people are aware of."
High levels of mercury can cause neurological and developmental problems in children.
Coal-burning plants produce the majority of mercury in Minnesota. When it collects in surface water, it accumulates in fish -- the chief source of mercury in humans.
Lois Norrgard of Minneapolis said she believes she became ill from mercury six or seven years ago because she ate too much fish when she switched to a vegetarian diet. Her doctor could not figure out what was causing her fatigue and memory loss, she said. But when she read an article about mercury toxicity, she quit eating fish and started feeling better. Now she eats only salmon, which does not accumulate mercury as much as larger, longer-lived species like tuna.
She decided to get her hair tested to be sure her levels were still low -- and they were, she said.
"Now, I'm clean," she said.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394