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Mercury In Lake Whactom

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Mercury in Lake Whatcom

Lake Whatcom is the source of drinking water for approximately 67,000 City of Bellingham and 15,000 Whatcom County citizens. Nearly 50% of the county population depends on this drinking water source. The watershed as a whole provides an enormous variety of recreational opportunities, irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat, and serves a key role in flood control. Despite the lake's obvious compelling benefits, both the degree and number of threats to its health are on the rise. Rapid housing developments, storm water runoff, hazardous substances, recreational misuse, and the lack of a comprehensive management plan are all contributing to the momentum that leaves the future of the watershed in serious jeopardy. The major issue with the health of Lake Whatcom is the high level of mercury in the water.

Lake Whatcom lies east of the City of Bellingham. The size of the lake is more 11 miles long, averaging more than one mile wide, and at its greatest depth, is 328 feet. The lake contains 243 billion gallons of fresh water.

Many people are familiar with the silvery liquid form of mercury found in thermometers. Though mercury is a naturally occurring metal, it is in rocks and soil and doesn't enter the food chain easily. When humans extract mercury from rocks, or burn fossil fuels, it's released into the air and water, which makes it very easy to concentrate in ways that it typically wouldn't in nature.

According to George Mateljan, best selling author and founder of The World's Healthiest Foods educational website, although mercury occurs naturally, both in the environment and in the body, the fact that it occurs in the human body is quite insignificant, because the amount is miniscule. Mercury has only become a problem in our environment and in our health because of activities performed by humans. Things such as the manufacturing of mercury batteries, thermometers, and mercury-containing fluorescent lights, have removed mercury from ground ores and placed it into materials which modern society uses and until very recently, simply dumped in landfills once they were no longer useful. The natural runoff of rain and snow water into Lake Whatcom can now carry mercury and other heavy metals into the lake.

In 2001, the EPA reported Water District #10 samples of untreated lake water contained four parts per billion of mercury pollution. The sampling study showed that mercury was not detected in treated drinking water supplies. The Department of Ecology issued a ban on human consumption of smallmouth bass, perch, bullheads, and cutthroat trout because their levels of mercury were the highest among the different fish species.

Mercury is found in fish tissue. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the amount of mercury in the fish itself is much greater than the amount of water surrounding them. The Ecology Department has confirmed that Lake Whatcom is safe for swimming, boating and other recreational activities, just that the fish is not safe to eat.

Data from the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicated that measures of mercury exposure fell below "levels of concern" in all tested children between ages 1 and 5 and in most women of childbearing age. Eight percent of these women, however, had concentrations higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended level of 5.8 micrograms per liter.

As long ago as 1865, in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, reports of mercury poisoning were recorded by Mr. Carroll. Although he did not know it at the time, his character, The Mad Hatter, suffered neurological affects of mercury poisoning. The profession of Hatter frequently was associated with the neurological trembling, associated with mercury poisoning. The hat makers of that era rubbed the felt hats with liquid mercury to smooth the felt in the hat making process. Of course prolonged contact with the mercury brought about the poisoning. A popular yet derisive term at the time was "he's mad as a hatter," which is self explanatory.

According to the EPA, mercury exposure at high levels can damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune systems of people of all ages. Other symptoms of mercury poisoning include impairment of peripheral vision, disturbing sensations in the hands, feet, and around the mouth, lack of coordination of movements, impairment of speech, hearing, walking; and muscle weakness. In most cases, research has shown eating fish is not a concern. But high levels of mercury in the blood stream of both unborn and young children can harm the developing nervous systems, making the child less able to think and learn. The harmfulness of an exposure to mercury depends on a number of factors. Some being the dosage, the age of the person exposed, the length of the exposure, the way that its exposed (whether it was inhaled, ingested or otherwise), and the over all health of the exposed person. Almost all people have some amount of mercury in their body. This shows that mercury pollution is a widely spread problem.

In the state of Washington, the top three sources of mercury from humans are diesel fuel combustion, coal-fired plants, and wastewater treatment plants. Traces of mercury can exist in coal and other fossil fuels. When plants burn these fuels, they emit a vapor that can be released into the atmosphere and float all over the world for a year or even longer before it settles somewhere in the environment. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the levels of mercury being dispersed over land and in water had decreased from 242 tons annually in 1993, to 160 tons annually by the end of the decade. The reason for this was because of the reduction of mercury in batteries, fungicides, and paint.

People as a whole also add to the mercury pollution when we throw away products containing mercury in the trash or dump them down the drain. According to a study by The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE), the estimated annual mercury releases from manufacturing processes was 296.3 pounds, followed by coal-fired power plants with 436.3 pounds, the disposal of solid waste and waste water producing 630.1 pounds, gold mines producing 776.6 pounds, and finally the disposal of products containing mercury with a total of 1,800 pounds. In Washington, thermostats add an estimated total of 431 pounds of mercury each year, and fluorescent lights contribute 507 pounds of mercury alone.

In April of 2003, Governor Gary Locke joined with business leaders and the departments of



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