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
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
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
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
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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