Coal is dirty. In late October of 1948 a temperature inversion occurred over the towns of Donora and Webster, Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River. The odd inverse of hot and cold air trapped the coal smoke and pollution billowing from a zinc smelter and a steel mill. The thick pollution nestled into the towns and resulted in the deaths of about two dozen people. The shocking toxicity eventually inspired federal air pollution legislation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, coal is still polluting Pennsylvania. Mercury and selenium are well known pollutants emitted through the burning of coal for power generation. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health now sheds light on how dangerous levels of mercury and selenium are winding up in the fish downwind of coal plants.
The pollutants from the coal power plants seep into lakes and rivers, where fish concentrate the pollution within their bodies. Known as bioaccumulation, even dilute pollution over time can be concentrated to toxic levels in an organism. Fish caught in the Allegheny River at Kittanning, 26 miles downwind from Reliant Energy's Cheswick Power Station showed 19 times more mercury and three times more selenium than a control population of fish caught in the three rivers area in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers meet.
"Given these results, we should be concerned about fish caught in areas that are situated close to coal-fired power plants, even if upstream from more heavily polluted areas," said principal investigator Dr. Conrad Volz, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology.
The malfunctioning of these enzymes and neurotransmitters interferes with important bodily functions that contributes to a range of neurological disorders such as insomnia, shyness, memory loss, emotional instability, depression, anorexia, vasomotor disturbance, uncontrolled perspiration, and blushing. Chronic exposure can lead to life threatening conditions such as renal failure, and severe dementia.
"These types of power plants may be significant sources of mercury and selenium in fish contamination," Volz said.
The communications director of Reliant Energy, the Huston, Texas based power company, said they had not seen the study but said the plant is in compliance with its air and water permits. If toxic levels of mercury and selenium are within permits, isn't it time to rethink our use of coal at all? How accountable is the Texas company for toxic fish in Pennsylvania?
The wild caught fresh water fish not only have mercury and selenium contamination, but have also been shown to be doped with the drugs and pesticides that flow from wastewater plants.
"We believe there are vast quantities of pharmaceutical and xeno-estrogenic waste in outflows from sewage treatment plants and from sewer overflows, and that these chemicals end up concentrated and magnified in channel catfish from contaminated areas," said Volz.
Volz said the results may indicate continued toxicity because although reductions in industrial pollution have recently occurred, the coal-fired power plants and wastewater treatment plants around Lake Erie continue to emit pollutants.
Fresh caught wild freshwater fish may not be as safe as you think. Sixty years ago it took dozens of deaths to insight outrage and change public opinion. What will be the cause of change this time?