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Lisa Kaas Boyle

Lisa Kaas Boyle

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Sierra Club Took My Hair and All I Got Was a Beyond Coal Button

Posted: 04/15/11 02:43 PM ET

I just had a lock of my hair chopped off to benefit science and the planet. I was joined by other moms, children and babies in more than 25 cities across the nation who have submitted to such snipping for a Sierra Club sponsored project to test for toxic Mercury in our bodies. Mercury is stored in our fatty tissues and in our hair, but thankfully Sierra Club only wanted my hair.

I was a willing victim of the hair snipping. Sierra Club found me on Facebook with an invitation to find out how much mercury is in my body at a free hair testing at Primrose Organics Hair Salon in Hollywood. I know a fair amount about mercury and its dangers, but nothing about how much of the stuff I am harboring, so I thought why not?

As I sat in the barber chair, the stylist asked me how I usually wear my hair, and I started to worry a bit. "How much are you planning to take?" The asymmetrically-cut, maroon-haired stylist answered, "They need 30-40 stands, and they need it from the scalp." I gulped and pointed to the back of my head where she snipped and assured me that nobody would ever notice. Then she taped the thin lock to a piece of cardboard for shipment to a laboratory at the University of Georgia. I will get my results within four weeks, and I volunteered to have my test data included anonymously in a University of Georgia research study.

On the way out, I took a Beyond Coal button for my hoodie and some information to mull over at lunch. Good thing I was at a vegetarian restaurant, but I appreciated the Mercury Survival Guide provided by Sierra Club to identify which seafoods to avoid, good alternatives to the most mercury contaminated seafoods, and the safest choices. But I was saddened to learn that nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury that can bio-accumulate in us, just as it does all the way up the food chain in sea creatures. That is why it is so important to watch what you eat and limit especially the high mercury seafood.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that is especially harmfully to fetuses, babies and children because their neurosystem is still under development. At least 1 in 12 and as many as 1 in 6 American women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood high enough to put her baby at risk of developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and cerebral palsy. It's not so great for anyone, even if your brain is already developed. Remember the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland? Hat makers were known to go stark raving mad from high exposure to mercury used in the process of making felt hats in the 18th and 19th century. Now we can get it from our sushi. Just ask Jeremy Piven, who does seems a bit mad, right?

But why did they give me a "Beyond Coal" button after my hair donation? What is the connection between my hair and coal? I actually learned about the connection from the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, but you can find out all you need to know here . Coal-fired power plants pump approximately 48 tons of toxic mercury into the air each year -- the largest domestic source of unregulated mercury pollution in the United States. Toxic mercury is released into the air where it rains down into our lakes, streams and oceans. Mercury gets converted into its most toxic form, methylmercury, by aquatic organisms that are eaten by bigger and bigger fish, accumulating the mercury, and finally by us.

The good news? In truth, I got more than a "Beyond Coal" button. I get to find out my own mercury burden, and knowledge is power. I get a US EPA that is finally, under Administrator Lisa Jackson, proposing "Power Plant Maximum Achievable Control Technology" under the Clean Air Act to cut mercury and other toxic air emissions from power plants. In California, I get a Governor who has signed legislation requiring 33% of California's energy needs to come from green, renewable sources by 2020.

But there is immediate action we can take to protect our seafood and our health from Mercury. In Los Angeles, we currently get 39% of our energy from coal-fired power. The source of this coal power is out of state plants that are some of the worst polluting plants in the nation. Currently, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power buys power from plants that contribute 1,218 lbs of mercury into the atmosphere each year. Just one gram of mercury per year, over time, is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake! And Mercury emissions travel in the air and impact seafood far from the source of the mercury emissions. You can tell LADWP to can their plan to continue getting power from the dirty Utah plant until 2027. And you can tell your national representatives to protect us from those who wish to use the budget wars to limit the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.