I went partly bald — for the environment.

Okay — the bald spot is really tiny. It’s a small patch where about 30 strands of hair grew — and in fact, are growing again, replacing the follicles that were snipped — for the environment.

Why? That lock went to a little science experiment that the Sierra Club is running. Basically, the green nonprofit is asking Americans across the country to give up a lock of hair and send it in to get tested for mercury.

Siel Ju's lock of hair, before it was sent in for mercury level testing

So a few weeks ago, I went to a Sierra Club event at Primrose Organics Salon in Los Angeles to get my hair snipped at the root — and sent to the Marine Extension Service at the University of Georgia’s Brunswick Station. Then I waited for three weeks with bated breath.

When people think of mercury, they think of seafood and food safety issues. As nonprofits like Environmental Working Group have pointed out, mercury in fish is a big problem, since a single can of Albacore tuna will put the average woman over the FDA’s recommended limit for mercury for an entire week. Is Sierra Club suddenly joining EWG and Monterey Bay Aquarium to urge people to eat safer seafood?

Well, yes and no. Certainly, this campaign draws attention to the fact that a lot of seafood contains alarming amounts of mercury. But what Sierra Club is pointing out with this campaign is that the mercury in the seafood comes from a human-made source — coal plants. That’s right — coal-fired power plants put tons of mercury pollution into the air each year that inevitably gets into our waterways when it rains. Once in the water, mercury gets turned into a very toxic form, methylmercury, by aquatic organisms. Fish then eat up this mercury and in turn get eaten up by us.

Many people today don’t even realize this is why so much of our food is mercury-tainted. If we want safer seafood, we need to shut down more coal-fired plants — and that’s exactly what Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign aims to do. The popular campaign to get coal out of our energy supply has students stripping to their skivvies, Angelenos dressing up in strange costumes, and comedians impersonating coal.

The hair tests were also a part of the campaign — intended to draw an even more personal connection between pollution from coal-fired power plants and human health. And since I and some of my friends all got scissored for the cause, the connection got really, really personal. Yesterday, I got a panicked call from one of my friends. “I’m in the red zone!” she cried. Apparently, she’d gotten her mercury test results — and didn’t like the findings. “I don’t even eat that much fish!”

I ran to the mailbox to see if I’d gotten my results. Sure enough, I had a thick envelope from Georgia!

mercury test results

Luckily, as you can see above, my news was better than my friend’s. I credit my low mercury success to entirely nixing canned tuna from my diet (I actually did this to avoid BPA from the cans, but I’m sure it had a mercury-lowering effect too), and obsessively opting for safer seafood choices in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide.

Concerned about mercury? I suggest you too opt for safer seafood. This safe seafood chart (PDF) by Neil Banas, which puts both sustainability and health-related info for seafood into a simple grid, makes safer seafood shopping easy. But if you look at that chart, you’ll notice that only a handful of seafood options fall into the “eco-good” and “toxins ok” sqare — limiting your options if you’ve got a hankering for a more varied seafood diet.

Want more seafood to be safer in the future? Get involved in the Beyond Coal campaign to stop the mercury problem at the source.

Also on MNN: How to get your hair tested for mercury

A scary haircut for the environment
MNN's lifestyle blogger sent her hair in to get tested for mercury levels — and waited with bated breath to get the results. How would your hair score?