published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, October 2003, Volume 2, Issue 4

Report From Campus Partners: Francis Marion University Courses Focus on Mercury Contamination and Fish - Students Create Photo Essay for Local Museum

To address the need for more environmentally-literate citizens, two professors in Environmental Science and Professional Writing (respectively) developed an interdisciplinary project involving their students in Environmental Science, Business Writing, and Technical Communication. In addition, they conducted a study to assess the impact of the project on students' environmental knowledge and attitudes. Addressing the statewide issue of mercury levels in South Carolina's freshwater fish, the project required students to research secondary information, conduct audience analyses of potential readers, design and produce multiple documents (including a power point presentation, letters, and a photo essay), and conduct review cycles with formal editorial recommendations. Environmental knowledge and attitude surveys administered before and after the project show that students who participated scored significantly higher in knowledge after completing the project.

The photoessay, called Danger in the Idyllic: South Carolinians at Risk, has been on display at the Florence, SC, museum during the months of August and September 2003. The 15 photos and interpretive labels, excerpted from their CD-ROM The Mercury Problem in South Carolina's Freshwaters, focus on the danger of eating mercury-contaminated freshwater fish in South Carolina. The CD-ROMs were mailed to all SC senators and representatives in an attempt to put knowledge together with civic action skills.

The photo essay and CD are the culminating products of an interdisciplinary course involving students in Lisa Pike's Honors Environmental Science class and Lynn Hanson's Business Writing and Technical Communication classes during Fall 2002. Over 149 students were involved in the project with at least 59 contributing to the content. The course and associated project addressed real issues that are being debated among policy makers today. It provided students a chance to investigate a local problem and a way to get involved in the solution. Studies have shown that students are more engaged in learning when the problem is real, and that they gain a sense of ownership when they realize that their work is being put to real use, and that their voices are making a difference.

Last year 48 states issued fish advisories, with 40 states specifically advising residents to restrict their consumption of certain fish due to mercury contamination in the water. These advisories covered over 63,000 lakes, 325,000 river miles, all of the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast and included the admonition "Pregnant women, women planning to become pregnant, infants and children should not eat any fish containing mercury." According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences (July 2000), mercury contamination is believed to cause neurological damage in some 60,000 babies born each year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control state that 10% of American women have mercury levels in their bloodstreams high enough to endanger a fetus should they become pregnant. The E.P.A. estimates that over 7 million women and children are eating mercury contaminated fish at or above levels considered safe. But even low doses of mercury can cause delays in mental development as well as chronic effects like increased heart attack risk and kidney damage.

South Carolinians are, of course, concerned about their health as well as the health of their environment. Providing clear, accessible fish consumption advisories to the people of the community is an important though difficult prospect. In South Carolina, there are 34 rivers/streams and 17 lakes with mercury-related fish consumption advisories. The types of fish affected include largemouth bass, bowfin, catfish, bluegill and red ear sunfish, most of which are common food fish. A larger problem is that the more subtle effects of mercury-tainted fish are difficult to distinguish from the effects of poverty. African Americans and Latinos in particular tend to eat more wild fish as a regular part of their diet, and therefore ingest more toxins than the typical sport fisher. A survey conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources shows that anglers from small towns or rural areas bought fishing licenses more frequently in the past five years than those from urban or suburban areas. In addition, the survey showed that 46% of active fishing license holders said they do not regularly read or subscribe to fishing-related publications. In general, the education levels of these groups are low, a factor related to economic status. For example, 13% of fishermen surveyed lacked a high school diploma, 40% had a high school degree only, and 22% had some college credit but hadn't completed a degree. Low income, low education and a greater need to supplement diet seem to indicate increased risks of mercury poisoning. Sierra Magazine reporter and environmentalist Paul Rauber states that "Like dead fish rising to the surface, poisons dumped down drains or pumped into the wind return again - often on the plates of the poor" (Nov/Dec 2001). He comments that, in the end, the only benefit of current fish consumption advisories is that they absolve the state of any legal responsibility for the poisoning of its citizens.

This year's class of environmental science students are surveying South Carolinians to determine their fish consumption habits: do they eat fish they catch or buy? What kinds of fish do they eat? The surveys include questions on ethnicity, race, income and educational level, and will attempt to find a correlation between fish consumption and other variables. This will let the class design information to specifically target people who may be more at risk of mercury poisoning. (SENCER thanks Professor Lisa Pike for this submission).