Much has been written about the hazards of mercury, but with the release of a new report from Environment America, the Environmental Protection Agency’s upcoming proposed air toxics standards on mercury, and all of the recent talk about Texas power plants, we felt that the issue warranted more attention.
How Are We Exposed to Mercury?
Nearly all exposure comes from eating fish or shellfish. These days, most of us know that we should limit the consumption of certain species of fish – especially pregnant women and nursing mothers. But how does the mercury get there in the first place?
After being released into the atmosphere, mostly by coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources, mercury eventually falls back to the earth depositing into soil or bodies of water. There it’s converted to methylmercury, which is even more toxic.
Small organisms ingest this methylmercury when they’re feeding, and likewise, animals higher in the food chain eat the smaller ones, until finally, people ingest it from eating those fish or animals.
What Are The Health Impacts of Mercury?
In addition to the negative impacts on water systems and wildlife, the human health impacts from mercury are numerous. Some of the most serious effects are neurological, with fetuses, infants and children at highest risk. EA’s report outlines more:
• “Children who are exposed to low-dosage levels of mercury in utero can have impaired brain functions, including verbal, attention, motor control, and language deficits, and lower IQs. Additionally, when children exposed to mercury in the womb are monitored at ages 7 and 14, these impairments still exist, which suggests that the effects of even low-level mercury exposure may be irreversible.
• Studies show that one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her bloodstream to put her child at risk of the health effects of mercury exposure should she become pregnant. This means that more than 689,000 out of the 4.1 million babies born every year could be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury pollution.
• While adults are at lower risk of neurological impairment than children, evidence shows that a low-level dose of mercury from fish consumption in adults can lead to defects similar to those found in children, as well as fertility and cardiovascular problems.
• Adult and in utero exposure to higher, acute levels of mercury has been linked to mental retardation, seizures, blindness, and even death.”
What is Being Done to Reduce Mercury Exposure?
Next month (March 15) EPA will propose air toxics standards to reduce mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants. It is our hope that a strong national standard is set forth to particularly reduce mercury emissions.
Why is this a particular concern in Texas? According to EA’s report “Dirty Energy’s Assault on our Health: Mercury,” Texas houses four of the nation’s 10 highest mercury-emitting power plants (see p. 9). Further, while some states have instituted limits on coal plant mercury emissions, Texas has not.
“Powering our homes should not put our health, our kids’ health, at risk,” Environment Texas’ Alejandro Savaransky said in a recent blog post. We couldn’t agree more.