Two months ago, some area residents volunteered to have a snip of their hair collected at an Ocean City hair salon and tested for mercury as part of a national campaign to raise awareness about pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants.

On Thursday, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club announced on the Ocean City Boardwalk that of the 34 people who agreed to share their results with the advocacy group, eight, or 23.5 percent, had mercury levels above the limit the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

While that may sound alarming, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said the results released by the Sierra Club lack statistical significance and context about who the participants are and why they may have elevated mercury levels.

“I don’t know what their testing means, who is tested, how it was tested. If this was something that came out of the American Medical Association or some scientific group, I would have some basis for seeing their sampling methods and the science of it, but at this point — and I don’t want to demean what they’re doing — I don’t know what it means,” Ragonese said. “We really don’t like to scare people, and I think this could scare people because they’ll hear something about mercury contamination.”

The Sierra Club embarked on a national campaign earlier this year for volunteers to have their hair sampled, which determines the level of mercury in the body, New Jersey chapter spokeswoman Christine Guhl said. As part of that campaign, the advocacy group is urging people to support rules proposed by the EPA that would establish national standards on how much mercury and other toxics could be released from coal-fired power plants, which are the largest source of airborne mercury pollution.

Once the chemical enters the environment, microbes convert it into a biologically available form called methymercury, which moves its way up the food change through fish. Large predatory fish have the highest concentration of methylmercury in their tissues, which is why there are consumption advisories. And consuming certain types of seafood is the major way for mercury to accumulate in humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In Ocean City, twins Jill Mullins and Jaime Bowen, 31, volunteered their results to the Sierra Club. Bowen, a mother of two, had a mercury level above the EPA limit, and Mullins, a mother of one, was well below the limit. Both said they live in the same house on Wesley Avenue and eat similar diets — their only major difference was that Mullins had lived out of state for a number of years before moving to Ocean City recently.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Mullins said. “What’s really disconcerting is that my level was so low and hers was so high.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

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