Mercury Dangers

Making Mercury Matters Worse

04-01-2004 // David Fink

Americans face concerns not only about declining fisheries but also about the dangers of eating contaminated fish; an administration plan will increase the risks.

AT WHAT POINT should protecting human health take precedence over protecting an industry’s bottom line? The question has come up repeatedly since Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, but it took on new significance late last year when the Bush administration announced plans to relax federal controls on mercury emissions from power plants. The announcement caught many health professionals by surprise.

This is a bad decision," says Dr. Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health expert at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. "Mercury affects brain development and the more mercury we’re exposed to, the worse off we are." Any decision that delays or stops or minimizes our abatement of mercury, he notes, will have a serious public health effect. Adds internist Dr. Judith Stein, former cochairperson of the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility: "We know without doubt that mercury poses a threat, particularly to children. This regulation will only make things worse."

Last December, new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael O. Leavitt proposed that coal-fired plant operators be allowed to postpone for as long as a decade a requirement that they install modern technology to reduce mercury pollution. The proposal, still under review at this writing, will allow utilities to meet less stringent mercury standards as a by-product of reducing other emissions, rather than by adding new equipment. A utility could opt out of reducing mercury emissions by buying "credits" from other power facilities to meet an overall weak industry target.

Ironically, the administration’s proposal was announced only days after the Food and Drug Administration issued revised warnings to women of childbearing age and young children to strictly limit their weekly consumption of fish because of concerns about mercury. The new draft advisory expanded the warnings to include tuna, but it was not as strict as the advice issued by 11 states.

The public can be exposed to mercury by everything from old thermometers to dental fillings. But coal-fired power plants remain the only unregulated—and the largest—sources of mercury pollution. Two years ago, EPA officials stated that by following current Clean Air Act requirements, power plants could feasibly cut mercury emissions by about 90 percent by 2010. Yet the Bush administration plan would reduce those emissions by only about 30 percent, even though the EPA has acknowledged the huge health risk involved.

According to the EPA, mercury has polluted 10.2 million acres of U.S. lakes, estuaries and wetlands, and 415,000 miles of streams, rivers and coasts. As a result, more than 40 states and U.S. territories have warned residents to limit consumption of certain fish, and 17 states have issued mercury advisories for fish in every inland water body.

The administration’s draft rule comes as seven states in the East and Midwest have adopted or are considering their own strict mercury emissions limits. The organization of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers has committed to cutting mercury levels from power plants by 75 percent by 2010. And last year, Connecticut passed what may be the most stringent state statute, requiring a 90 percent reduction by 2008.

PSEG Power in New Jersey negotiated and agreed to the Connecticut statute for its coal-fired plant in Bridgeport. "We think there are technologies available at a reasonable cost that can deliver the kind of reductions in the Connecticut statute," says company spokesperson Neil Brown.

Meanwhile, conservationists are concerned too few Americans are aware of the risk mercury poses. Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control in 1999–2000, EPA estimates that one out of six women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood above the EPA’s safe threshold. As a result, more than 600,000 newborns each year are at risk because of mercury exposure in the womb.

In general women are most at risk and they are not getting adequate advice from their healthcare providers," says Felice Stadler, national policy coordinator of NWF’s Clean the Rain Campaign. She points out that the mercury threat is dangerously similar to the nation’s experience with lead: Each new study indicated a greater danger until, ultimately, no level was found to be safe.

In the past," says Stadler, "we thought mercury posed a threat to only a small segment of the population, such as subsistence fishermen and sportsmen who ate a lot of fish. Now we know it’s much more widespread. We should be expanding mercury controls on emissions, not relaxing them."

Writer David Fink lives in Connecticut. To read more about issues relating to mercury, see the Action Report

What You Can Do

Methylmercury, the organic form of mercury that contaminates fish (and accumulates in people and wildlife that eat these fish), is highly toxic. It has been shown to interfere with development of the central nervous system in infants, which can ingest it from breast milk when mothers eat contaminated fish. Children who eat certain fish can suffer from lack of coordination, attention deficit and other disabilities. In adults, evidence suggests methylmercury poisoning can contribute to heart disease and affect fertility and blood pressure regulation.

Does this mean you should avoid eating fish? "Definitely not," says Felice Stadler, NWF’s national coordinator for mercury-related programs. "Fish is an important source of protein and fatty acids. But all of us, and especially pregnant women, need to be mindful of how often and what kinds of fish we eat. It’s important to check regularly to see what fish advisories are in effect." For current information about state fish advisories, see www.epa.gov/mercury. To read about NWF’s mercury campaign, see www.epa.gov/mercury.

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