A statewide plan to help determine the extent of mercury in South Carolina’s rivers is the victim of budget cuts.
Two years ago, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) began conducting blood tests on Florence and Lake City residents to find how much mercury was in their bodies. However, budget concerns have prevented the agency from expanding the tests into other parts of the state, as originally intended.
Fish contaminated with mercury have been found in over 1700 miles of the state’s rivers, mostly in the Lowcountry and Pee Dee. There are fears that people who eat contaminated fish could suffer heart and neurological disorders. It can also impair children’s growth.
Berry said the limited testing only in the Pee Dee means many questions will go unanswered statewide.
Is it just isolated to the Pee Dee? Even, if there is a larger problem within the Pee Dee or not? That’s part of the entire effort that we had underway was to try to first determine if there is a problem, then… what’s going to be the best way to address it?
Berry said the mercury testing probably won’t be expanded to cover the rest of the state until the budget recovers. Of the 100 people who have been tested so far in the Pee Dee, only two showed a level of mercury that is higher than what the EPA considers elevated.
The agency also added five mercury-related questions to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s telephone survey in South Carolina. DHEC estimates 10,000 South Carolinians have participated in the survey. The new questions deal with whether the person had possibly been exposed to mercury in fish– how often they ate fish they caught from a nearby body of water, for example. The state is also sending a similar questionnaire to women who have recently given birth.
Berry said mercury contamination is hard to track, since so much of it is carried through the air from sources outside the state.
However, you don’t have to live in the Pee Dee region to get your blood tested. Berry explains:
If anyone in the state wants to find out what their mercury level is in their blood, they can go to their physician and have a very simple blood test taken. The physician can then send the blood to our state laboratory here in Columbia.
The state began looking into mercury testing after a Charleston Post & Courier series of articles found elevated levels in the blood of many South Carolinians they tested who consumed fish from South Carolina’s rivers and lakes. Up to that point, DHEC mostly focused on testing the tissues of fish caught in the waters, rather than people who consumed the fish.