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The Planet
Bush Plan Falls Short on Mercury

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by John Byrne Barry

For the past 30 years, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund program have cleaned up our air, waters, and communities, and held industrial companies accountable for their pollution. But some toxins, like mercury, have slipped through the cracks and continue to poison the nation's air and waterways. According to a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which analyzed EPA data, more rivers and lakes than ever before contain fish with unsafe levels of mercury. Under a Bush administration proposal deceptively titled "Clear Skies," many communities would be exposed to three times more toxic mercury from coal-fired power plants than if the Clean Air Act were simply enforced.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to reduce toxic emissions from power plants by making all power plants perform at the level of the cleanest plants, essentially making sure that all facilities use up-to-date air pollution controls and adopt the industry's best operating practices. In 2001, the EPA estimated that enforcing the law could cut power-plant mercury pollution from 48 tons today to about 5 tons by 2008. The Bush plan, by comparison, would allow three times more pollution. All but seven states have advisories in effect for mercury in fish. Only 27 did in 1993-that's a 60-percent increase. Kentucky leads the nation in the number of river miles under mercury advisory.

Once mercury is absorbed in water, it is ingested in small organisms, which are eaten by small fish that are in turn eaten by bigger fish. The concentration of mercury grows as the fish get bigger. Mercury is especially dangerous to children and pregnant woman, but it also poses a neurological risk to adults.

Even relatively tiny amounts can produce serious developmental delays in walking, talking, hearing, and writing. According to the EPA, approximately 8 percent of women of childbearing age have mercury levels in their blood that exceed 5.8 parts per billion. Children born to women with blood concentrations of mercury at that level are at risk.

People can be exposed to unsafe levels of mercury in two different ways. When objects containing mercury (like thermometers or fluorescent bulbs) break or leak, elemental mercury vapors are released into the air and can cause lung damage, nausea, skin damage, permanent nerve damage, and sometimes death. More commonly, however, people are exposed to mercury in fish. The mercury in fish, which may be a million times more concentrated than it is in the water they live in, comes from a variety of sources, the largest of which are coal-burning power plants.

Coal contains trace amounts of mercury that are released into the air as it is burned for energy. Raindrops absorb this airborne mercury and end up in our lakes, streams, and rivers. A typical coal-burning power plant emits about 250 pounds of mercury a year. That doesn't sound like much, but 0.0007 pounds of mercury a year-about 1/70th of a teaspoon-is enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point that fish would be unsafe to eat.

Call the White House Council on Environmental Quality at (202) 395-5750, and urge strong enforcement of the Clean Air Act, not weakening of it.

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