The Marshall Islands is participating in the region’s first study checking the levels of mercury in local residents.
Cook Islander Imogen Ingram, who is conducting the survey in at least five Pacific nations, was here last month working with WUTMI to take hair samples of 30 women that will be laboratory tested for mercury.
Why the concern about mercury? Oceans have been contaminated with mercury from various sources, which means it is in certain fish. “The concern in the Pacific islands is people eat a lot of fish,” said Ingram, who works with the Island Sustainability Alliance of the Cook Islands in Rarotonga.
Ingram said she had herself tested and discovered that her body burden is two and a half times what is considered the maximum acceptable level in the United States. It motivated her to look at the situation region wide. She was able to get a grant to support the survey of women in multiple islands. She is taking small samples of hair in 30 women aged 18-44 in each island. A laboratory in the state of Maine is handling the analysis of the hair samples. So far, Ingram has completed work in Tonga, Cook Islands, and Marshall Islands, and was heading to Kiribati and Tuvalu to get further samples.
“We can’t stop eating fish, and I don’t want to scare people,” she said. “But it’s better that we know.” If the study shows high levels of mercury exposure, this is another piece of information that can be used to push developed nations to reduce the use of coal fired power plants, which as a byproduct of generating electricity produce mercury as gas that gets into rivers, land and oceans.
WUTMI partnered with Ingram to get the samples from women living in the downtown area of Majuro as well as Laura side. The results won’t be available until the end of this year. Part of WUTMI’s role, she said, is to gather the participants to share the results and answer questions about them.
Despite the globally acknowledged hazard of mercury exposure, only two Pacific governments have expressed official interest in the Minamata Convention to protect people and the environment from mercury exposure: Palau has signed but not yet ratified the agreement, while Samoa has ratified it.
The World Health Organization lists mercury in its “top 10” list of chemicals that are a public health concern.
Read more about this in the September 9, 2016 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.