Mercury Threat Demands Action

David B. Sandalow
David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
David B. Sandalow Former Brookings Expert, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy - School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

February 24, 2004

Many of us grew up using mercury thermometers to see whether we were sick enough to stay home from school. Now it turns out the mercury in those thermometers is a bigger health threat than our parents realized. Legislation banning the sale of mercury thermometers recently sailed through a unanimous U.S. Senate.

But the amount of mercury in thermometers is tiny compared with the amount belched every year from the smokestacks of our nation’s power plants. Each year more than 48 tons of mercury spew from coal-fired power plants into the nation’s skies, eventually raining down into lakes, rivers and streams. This mercury then works its way through the food chain, ending up in the tissue of popular fish such as largemouth bass and yellow perch.

Today, 43 states have fish advisories for mercury.

The dangers of mercury poisoning have long been recognized. In the 19th century, mental illness and uncontrollable tremors plagued workers in hat factories, due to long-term exposure to mercury. (Ever wonder where the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” comes from?) In the 1950s, huge amounts of mercury wastes in Minimata Bay, Japan, produced heart-wrenching birth defects and left hundreds of people dead or disabled.

But recent data suggest health problems—including learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders—associated with much lower levels of mercury exposure. A Harvard study released earlier this month found that women exposed to mercury from heavy seafood diets during pregnancy can irreversibly impair certain brain functions in their children. Last year the World Health Organization revised its recommendation for the amount of mercury that can safely be consumed, cutting its previous figure by more than half.

Perhaps most striking, a recent EPA analysis concludes that more than 630,000 infants are born in the United States each year with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.

In light of the data, government measures to control mercury are surprisingly weak. Last December, in a move that surprised many observers, the Bush administration proposed that mercury emissions from power plants should no longer be treated as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Michael Leavitt, the new EPA administrator, suggested stretching the deadline for reducing mercury emissions from power plants, extending by more than a decade the time that would be allowed if mercury were treated as a hazardous pollutant.

Leavitt also proposed to let individual power plants buy and sell the right to emit extra mercury, leaving areas around such plants at risk of becoming toxic hot spots. (Such “emissions trading” programs work well in fighting some types of pollution, but are inappropriate for highly toxic pollutants such as mercury.)

In the same month, the Bush administration missed an opportunity to tackle the problem of mercury releases from another major source—the nation’s nine chloralkali plants. Each year these facilities purchase large amounts of mercury but then cannot explain where much of that mercury goes. Leavitt issued pollution control rules for these plants without setting limits on mercury releases.

The public will have a chance to comment on EPA’s proposed power plant rules at open hearings this week in Chicago, Philadelphia and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. EPA will be collecting written comments on its proposal through late March (by email: [email protected].)

As for your mercury thermometer—there’s no need to panic if you still have one in your home. Keep it in a safe place. Contact your doctor if it breaks and someone in your family is exposed to the mercury inside. And urge your city government to start a collection and safe disposal program, if there isn’t one already.

With sensible, science-based policies, we can protect our families from mercury pollution.