COLUMBIA -- More than half of South Carolina's rivers and lakes are under warnings for mercury contamination in fish. But there is no testing system in place once those waters reach the ocean.
With marine fish from other states being poisoned, two environmental groups have renewed calls for state officials to test saltwater fish for mercury. The state now appears ready to tackle the matter.
"We definitely feel we need some kind of coastal component" in the state's overall mercury-testing program, said Dave Chestnut, a senior water-quality scientist at the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
DHEC has proposed doubling the budget for its fish testing, but needs legislative approval. Fish that could be tested include croaker, flounder and certain types of sea bass.
While the state found unsafe mercury levels in freshwater fish nearly four years ago, budget constraints at the DHEC kept the agency from testing saltwater species.
The Washington-based Environmental Working Group, citing federal statistics, said Wednesday that mercury has been found in canned tuna, cooked haddock, boiled shrimp and frozen fish sticks.
"It's the same ocean; it's a national problem," the group's Jackie Savitz said. "The data suggest you definitely need to have more testing of saltwater species."
Florida already has issued mercury advisories on certain species of common inshore fish as well as sharks because enough of the toxic metal has settled in their tissues, Savitz said.
Mercury can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys or to developing fetuses if a person eats food with high levels of the toxic metal.
Scientists believe mercury taints fish in many waterways from the desert Southwest to the East Coast because of smokestack emissions.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency this week is expected to issue an analysis of the mercury problem across the country. A draft of the report says 1.6 million women and young children are at risk of mercury poisoning from eating fish.
Mercury pollution has prompted 37 states to issue more than 1,600 advisories against eating fish from certain bodies of water. DHEC has posted 26 advisories in South Carolina, mostly on rivers and lakes from Columbia to the coast.