Most people know that mercury is harmful to human health and that one of the primary ways we ingest it is by eating fish.

But most of that discussion centers on fish found in the world's oceans.

Yet even in a landlocked state like Montana, mercury can be a problem, said Bob Clark, an organizer with the Sierra Club.

Yes, it's emitted from the smokestacks at oil refineries, biomass facilities and coal-fired power plants, but it's also found in fish living in Montana's streams and lakes.

In places such as Bighorn, Flathead and Georgetown lakes, mercury content is so high that the state health department issued warnings that women and children should not eat fish from those waters. Mercury ingestion is particularly problematic for pregnant women, and can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system. Mercury can affect cognitive thinking, memory and attention, language, and fine motor skills.

What to do about these concerns? Raise awareness, which is what Clark and his staff with the nonprofit environmental group did on Wednesday at the Boom Swagger hair salon on South Third Street West in Missoula.

Free mercury testing was made available in a painless process that involved just a few seconds of hair cutting.

Each bundle of hair was then marked with the person's name and will be tested by the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, which is providing the technical assistance for the Sierra Club's national testing program.

"Mercury has a lot of serious health risks, and it is especially important for pregnant women and for women who are thinking about getting pregnant to be aware of those risks and get tested because it can cause a host of developmental issues for babies and young children," said Rachel Jennings, an organizer of the Sierra Club event.

Those concerns are what brought KC Weeks into the salon on Wednesday afternoon.

"I want to know whether mercury is in my system going forward," said the 22-year-old. "I hope to have kids someday."

"Mercury is a very potent neurotoxin and it's important to know how much is in your body," said Mollie Allers, 23. Like Weeks, she was taking a the measure to ensure the best outcomes possible for the children she one day hopes to have.

"I just want to know to so I can become more intelligent about my own body and the choices I make about food," said 27-year-old Sarah Martin. "And I love seafood."

Ali Solomon, 36, said she is particularly curious about her test results.

"I don't eat fish or seafood," Solomon said, "so I'm really interested to see what mercury levels are in my body."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen


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