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The Planet
Mercury Rising

By Brian Vanneman

Talk about sending mixed messages. On December 10, 2003, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration went public with their findings that mercury threatens the health of more Americans than previously believed. In the past, for example, pregnant mothers had been cautioned against eating seafood with high mercury levels. Now, the EPA warned that by eating more than three servings of fish per week, even women who "might become pregnant" placed their children at greater risk of lowered intelligence and developmental disabilities.

Yet just a few days prior to the December announcement, EPA director Mike Leavitt publicized new rules that will allow three times as much mercury to enter the air compared with simply enforcing of the Clean Air Act.

"It is astonishing that while the Bush administration is warning people about increased health threats from eating mercury-laden fish, it is weakening the very clean-air protections that would reduce mercury pollution," says Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director.

In 2000, the EPA decided that mercury must be regulated as a hazardous air pollutant. The following year, the agency ruled that industry would have to use existing technology to cut emissions by 90 percent—from 48 tons a year to 5—by 2008. By contrast, the plan released by Bush administration appointees at the EPA calls for emissions to be cut to 15 tons a year by 2018. That will mean three times as much mercury emissions every year—or as much as 300 additional tons released into our natural systems over the next decade and a half.

Leavitt’s December rules, issued without the oversight of any elected body, would also downgrade mercury from "hazardous pollutant" to "pollutant." Substances in the former group are mandated under the Clean Air Act to be controlled using the best technology available. Mere pollutants, however, are subject to much less stringent standards.

Adding insult to injury, the Bush administration has been pitching its plan as a mercury "reduction." Yet it’s anything but a reduction when compared with the 90 percent reduction plan suggested by the EPA. Apparently, the administration prefers to compare its plan to the alternative of no regulation at all.

Most mercury that poses a threat to Americans begins as a lump of coal. When burned in power plants, coal releases mercury, which is then discharged from facilities’ smokestacks, carried by the wind, returned to the earth via precipitation, and deposited in lakes and streams. Mercury is absorbed by fish, and passed up the food chain. So the largest predatory fish have the highest concentration of the element, and the mercury contained in their muscles and fat is passed on to other wildlife and people who eat the fish.

Coal is not only the main source of mercury in our environment—accounting for roughly 40 percent of airborne emissions—it represents an abundant source of campaign contributions for the Bush administration. In 2000, electric utilities contributed $48 million to the Republican party, $3 million of which went directly to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Four huge coal-power producers—American Electric Power, Southern Co., Reliant Energy, Dominion Resources, and the Tennessee Valley Authority—are responsible for a third of all U.S. electric utility mercury emissions and more than $2.5 million in Republican campaign contributions.

Eric Uram, who monitors the Midwest’s air and water quality from the Club’s Madison, Wisconsin, office, has been tracking the health effects of mercury for years. In 1999, he testified on the pollutant before a National Academy of Sciences review board. Uram has witnessed a number of cases of severe mercury contamination in his state alone. The hospitalization of Buddy Henk prompted the Duluth News-Tribune headline "Love of Fish Almost Kills Man." Henk routinely caught and then ate 40 fish a week from Lake Windigo in northern Wisconsin, located just a few miles from the land where he was born and still lived. Then, suddenly, "his legs stopped working. His mind ‘went goofy.’" Suffering from severe hallucinations, he landed in a Duluth hospital where doctors diagnosed him with mercury overexposure. In adults, mercury has been shown to cause damage to the liver, kidney, and nervous system; fatigue, muscle cramps, and numbness have also been documented. "Years later," says Uram, "he still suffers from intermittent health problems and must use specially designed supports to get around due to the nerve damage caused by mercury."

Despite the debilitating effects mercury has had on Buddy Henk, Midwestern anglers are not the group most vulnerable to mercury-induced health problems. The neurotoxin is particularly harmful to the developing brains and nervous systems of young children and even babies still in the womb. That is why the EPA issued past warnings that pregnant mothers should curb their fish intake. Moreover, mercury accumulates and remains in mothers’ bodies for at least a year and potentially far longer. Children born to women exposed to toxic levels of mercury have exhibited delays in onset of walking and talking, deficits in learning abilities, and cerebral palsy. Hence EPA’s December warning to women who may become pregnant—a significant percentage of the American female population.

Families nationwide face the same threats confronting Emily Kordus, an Appleton, Wisconsin resident is working with Uram to get the word out about mercury. In the summer of 2003, Kordus had a two-year-old daughter and another baby on the way when she began to lobby the state legislature to put some significant mercury regulations on the books. "I can live with having to make an alternative meal," says Emily Kordus, "but what makes my heart sick are all of those pregnant women and young children out there who are eating fish and who are being poisoned because of power-plant companies caring more about their bottom line than about the health of children." Many women of child-bearing age are unaware of the dangers of mercury, though an estimated one out of every dozen has unsafe levels of the contaminant. Kordus’ husband Bill, former president of the Twin Cities Rod and Gun Club, is angry too. "Too many of the fish have warnings against feeding them to your family," he says. "Where do you go where you can actually catch good clean fish?" There are not too many places, it turns out. Forty-four states have issued a combined several thousand mercury advisories.

The Sierra Club has also been getting the word out about the dangers of mercury and the Bush administration’s reluctance to protect the public. On January 15, the Club took the message to a nationwide audience with a combination of TV and print ads in nine states and the District of Columbia.

"So far, the public is responding," says Orli Cotel, a Sierra Club media representative. "Two women from Tampa called yesterday after seeing our commercial. They are not Sierra Club members, but their children had suffered from mercury exposure, and they want to help get the word out."

Tell the Bush administration that mercury is a hazardous pollutant that threatens the health of our lakes and rivers, young children, and even unborn babies. It must be regulated using the best technology available, not a weak system that will allow hundreds of additional tons of mercury into our air. Or, write a similar letter to the editors of your local newspaper.

Comments to the EPA can be addressed to: Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Docket Center (EPA/DC), Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center, 6102T, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20460, Attention Docket ID No. OAR-2003-0053.

Additional EPA contact information can be found at www.epa.gov/interstateairquality/comment.html.

For more, go to sierraclub.org/cleanair.



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