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EPA’s Latest Proposal: More Mercury in Fish and People
This administration’s attempts to roll back clean air, clean water, climate, and other environmental safeguards are numerous and sometimes overwhelming. Yet, continued public watchfulness is necessary, as evidenced by the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent proposal to weaken the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. This rule has been in place since 2011 to limit the release of toxic mercury and other hazardous air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Rolling back this safeguard would be disastrous for public health and wildlife.
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The Toxic Danger of Mercury
Mercury is a naturally-occurring element, and is found in many sources, most notably coal. When coal is burned at a power plant, the mercury is released into the air. Some of the airborne mercury is then deposited by rain storms in local environments, or transported long distances and deposited in ecosystems far away from the source. This pollution makes its way into streams, rivers and lakes, and then travels up through organisms in the food chain to contaminate the food we eat, becoming a serious concern for all those who enjoy the outdoors.
In water, mercury converts quickly to methylmercury, its most toxic and easily consumed form. Mercury accumulates in the body tissue of fish and shellfish, and in greater concentrations in predatory fish. The mercury also collects in the bodies of wildlife like loons, ducks, eagles, and bears that rely on fish for their diet.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. When people eat fish or other food containing mercury, they are at risk for brain and neurological damage. For people of any age, mercury can cause loss of peripheral vision, coordination problems, muscle weakness, and impaired hearing, speaking, and walking. The developing brains of fetuses, infants, and children are at even greater risk. Early exposure – including in the womb – can lead to a lifetime of problems with cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual spatial skills. For this reason, consumers – especially pregnant women and children – are advised by the federal government not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish, and to minimize their intake of other fish and shellfish. All 50 states have consumption advisories warning people about the mercury-related health risks from eating certain locally-caught fish.
When mercury enters the food chain, wildlife are unable to rid themselves of the neurotoxin. Because mercury is most toxic and most easily consumed after it enters water, scientists have focused on fish species and the predators that consume fish. However, scientists have also found dangerous levels of mercury in amphibians, reptiles, and song birds that are not closely linked with aquatic systems, which demonstrates how far mercury can travel across ecosystems.
Mercury can severely damage the neurological and hormonal systems of vertebrate species, and can impact their development. Even doses that are too low to kill an animal outright can have other impacts that reduce its ability to survive or produce viable offspring. One study found that very low levels of mercury in the Florida Everglades could reduce the number of ibis fledglings by half, which is enough to have population level impacts. Another study of ospreys in Montana found that only half the eggs laid by birds with high levels of mercury hatched.
We Can Protect People and Wildlife from Mercury and Air Toxics
Because of these serious human and wildlife health risks, the Obama Administration finalized a first-ever rule in 2011 to require coal plants to install technologies that make the pollution they release less dirty and toxic. The rule was estimated to quickly achieve 90 percent reductions in mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. This pollution reduction was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to annually avoid:
- up to 11,000 premature deaths;
- nearly 5,000 heart attacks;
- 130,000 asthma attacks; and
- 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits.
The coal industry had challenged the rule, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the rule was ultimately left in place. Since then, the rule has been successfully implemented for a number of years, and the industry has invested significantly in new technologies. For this reason, prominent utility industry groups wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency this summer asking that the rule remain “in place and effective.” They titled their piece, “We already spent the money, keep [the] air toxics rule.”
The Trump Administration wants to reduce protections against mercury, claiming that the benefits of reducing mercury pollution are outweighed by the costs of complying with the regulation. However, environmental groups argue that the co-benefits – benefits to public health and the environment that come from reduced pollution overall, especially from cleaner air and water – far outweigh these costs. It is vital that we protect critical ecosystems from the harms of mercury pollution.
In sum, a rollback of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would pollute wildlife habitat to the detriment of vulnerable species and outdoor recreation, and harm public health, especially developing children. Plus, the regulated coal power industry wants to keep the rule in place. Clearly, there is no good reason – and a lot of bad reasons – to weaken or undo the mercury rule.