By Javier Sierra
"A shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current," warned a Department of Homeland Security Spanish-language ad campaign introduced last month. The ads tell us that when it comes to protection against terrorism, a guardian angel is not enough, that "help will not miraculously fall from the sky." In other words, we all must be alert.
Indeed, this is a wise piece of advice, because while help is not falling from the sky, a toxic rain is, and it's keeping millions of people's guardian angels very busy. This toxic rain comes from air pollution, and one of its most dangerous ingredients is mercury.
This extraordinarily toxic heavy metal is mainly generated by coal-burning power plants, which release tons of mercury each year. Mercury emitted into the air falls with the rain into our waterways where it enters the food chain after being absorbed by fish, and is dangerous to people who eat them.
Last month, in their first joint alert on this issue, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) increased the number of fish species to the list of those containing excessive levels of mercury. The warning advises people not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, and warns people to limit their consumption of tuna.
Also, both agencies expanded the list of people at most risk of mercury poisoning, adding children, nursing mothers and women who might become pregnant. Unfortunately, these three groups are among those who eat the most canned tuna. In 2002, 45 states issued fish consumption warnings on unsafe levels of mercury.
The poison causes learning and development disabilities in children. The EPA estimates each year some 60,000 newborn infants may be at risk of neurodevelopmental effects from in utero exposure to mercury. Remember, Hispanics are much more vulnerable to environmental poisoning, including mercury, than the general population.
With such a threat literally over our heads, one would imagine the government would be more than willing to give our guardian angels a hand. Not so. In fact, it is the complete opposite.
Days after the FDA and EPA issued their alert, the White House announced an initiative that will allow three times more mercury pollution than is allowed under the current law. The decision was announced after several closed-door meetings took place with the participation of industry representatives and the absence of environmental and public health groups.
"No one's saying what happened at the meeting," said Michael Bender, director of Mercury Policy Project. "It presents the appearance, and perhaps the reality, of allowing children to be poisoned for the sake of campaign contributions."
ccording to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2000, President Bush has received more campaign contributions from the electric utilities than any other politician. Five lobbyists from one of the country's largest energy companies, Southern Company, have become "pioneers," the select group of backers each of whom has raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign. Another industry leader, Richard Davidson, has raised $200,000.
But we can do better. The necessary technology exists in order to eliminate 90% of mercury emissions by 2008. Instead, the Bush administration decision will allow the dumping in the atmosphere of 300 additional tons of mercury in the next 14 years.
This was not the only load of coal the Bush Administration gave us over the holidays. On December 31, it denied a petition for a moratorium on the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Experts have warned sewage sludge contains highly toxic substances that can run off into streams and enter ground water sources after the sludge is sprayed on the fields.
It is no wonder, therefore, that six of the EPA's top enforcers have resigned since February of 2002, including Administrator Christie Whitman. Three of them left last month after the agency announced it would drop several lawsuits against several coal-burning utilities for violating the Clean Air Act.
There has been no vacation for our guardian angels these holidays. It's time to give them a break and start asking our public officials to protect the laws that are meant to protect us.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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