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Hair Samples Tell the Tale

What is the level of potentially toxic mercury in the bodies of Alexandrians? That was the question 30 residents hoped to have answered Aug. 24 when they donated samples of their hair to mercury exposure tests being conducted under the aegis of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

Joining the 30 volunteers at Lords & Ladies Hair Salon, 605 Franklin St., were Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper and City Councilman Ludwig P. Gaines. Each volunteer submitted to having a lock of their hair cut to be tested for mercury content in their body.

Sharon Frances, owner of the Alexandria salon as well as another in Del Ray, decided to perform the service at the request of one of her regular clients, Lillian White, a Sierra Club member. "Lillian is a good client of ours in Del Ray and we are more than happy to provide this service. It's for a very good cause," Frances said.

"The reason I wanted this done was out of concern over the pollutants being put out by the Mirant plant. This is only one concern over that situation," White said as she assisted the beauticians in gathering the necessary personal profiles from the volunteers.

"This is something that should concern everyone. I'll be interested to hear how these tests turn out," said Gaines.

"I think this is very important. It is something people should be aware of. I really wanted to know what my level of mercury is since I eat a lot of fish," Pepper said.

Coal-burning power plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution in the United States and responsible for 33 percent of the total mercury emissions from all manmade sources nationwide, according to Sierra Club statistics.

"One in six women of childbearing age already has enough mercury in her body to put a fetus at risk of developmental disorders and learning disabilities," said Chris Carney, Mount Vernon Group, Sierra Club.

"Coal-fired power plants emit mercury into our air, where it rains down into our rivers and streams and finds its way to our bodies through contaminated fish. The good news is that there is something we can do about mercury pollution," he said.

"States like New Jersey have already made a commitment to reduce mercury pollution by 90 percent. The technology is out there. We just need to move in that direction," Carney said.

Samples gathered at the end of last month were sent to the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, which will process the results. Each participant's data will be added anonymously to a UNC research study involving the largest sample size of any study to date on the effects of mercury in the U.S. population.