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A TOXIC, EXOTIC MESS IN THE EVERGLADES

With the environmental focus on global warming and greenhouse gases, it's easy to forget that other pollutants continue to need regulatory attention. Just look at the discovery of mercury-laden pythons in the Everglades.

Twenty years ago, state officials found that the Everglades was polluted with mercury, which can cause abnormal development, paralysis and death. Scientists believed the mercury settled in the water from air pollution and found it in fish, raccoons, alligators, wading birds and Florida panthers. And now, even the invasive python, as Times environmental writer Craig Pittman reported this week.

Once state officials cracked down on mercury emissions from South Florida's municipal waste and medical waste incinerators, the levels measured in South Florida dropped by 93 percent in less than a decade, and endangered wildlife quickly rebounded. That's the good news. But mercury persists in the environment, and the exotic Burmese pythons - relatively new to the Everglades as a nuisance species - show why continued vigilance and tough regulation remain necessary. The state has just expanded a hunting program to reduce the python's numbers, and tissue samples from the captured snakes unexpectedly show "extraordinarily high levels of mercury," according to National Park officials.

The levels may be high because pythons are nearly atop the food chain and accumulate high levels of mercury by eating anything that moves. Whatever the reason, it is a reminder of how pollution problems can persist long after regulations are in place to eliminate the sources of toxic substances. And the mercury poisoning serves as a lesson about how long it can take for even strict regulations to finally eliminate poisons and problems from the environment.

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