Fears of Mercury Are Unjustified

Posted April 20, 2005 at 2:37pm

Science, technology and politics have intersected throughout history with both positive and negative results.

It is for this very reason, in part, that high school students must learn a principle known as the scientific process, which tests hypotheses through a series of objective steps designed to prove or disprove a theory. When one scientist or group claims to have reached a specific conclusion, the very same conclusion must be confirmed and replicated by the evidence. This process ensures the best and correct conclusions.

But by nature, this simple process is adversarial and often complicated by political beliefs.

This is certainly the case with the debate about the federal government’s regulation of mercury emissions.

A brief look at the history of the mercury rulemaking demonstrates that controversy was central to that process and politics definitely played a role. The Clinton administration studied mercury for eight years with no policy results. But after all those years in silence, just two days after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush as 43rd president, the Clinton Environmental Protection Agency declared that the new government should regulate with the strictest controls.

Surely during those eight long years in office, the administration could have done something to thwart this so-called public health crisis.

Now, the Bush administration is being accused of “favoring industry” in its rulemaking and “allowing more mercury into the air.”

All the hype aside, it’s important to note that mercury is a naturally occurring element found throughout the earth’s crust. In fact, as the science of mercury has continued to evolve, scientists believe Earth’s natural processes may be the largest contributor of mercury into the environment. Yellowstone National Park may emit more mercury than all of Wyoming’s eight coal-fired power plants combined. Imagine that — Mother Earth, our own worst mercury enemy.

On the contrary, alarmism from environmental groups focuses great attention on the nation’s coal-fired power plants as the main culprit or emitter of mercury, and fish as the avenue of human exposure. They whittled sound bites down to radical statements such as, “Your kids are being poisoned by deadly mercury.”

But U.S. power plants account for less than 1 percent of global mercury. Of the man-released sources of mercury into the atmosphere, developing countries in Asia are the principal contributors. And mercury must be talked about in a larger global picture since it can cycle in the atmosphere for a period of a year or more before being deposited to the earth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of the American population has shown that none of the population is at risk from mercury poisoning. The EPA’s reference dose, or risk level, is the most conservative in the world and more than adequately protects even the most sensitive in the population.

Egregious claims from environmental groups of as many as 630,000 children born each year at risk of permanent brain damage because of their mothers’ exposure to mercury is both unfounded and insincere. Actual data shows that less than 4 percent of women in the United States even cross EPA’s level of concern and still have an eight-fold safety factor before the lowest “observed” affect. Moreover, not a single child in the NHANES study has blood mercury values anywhere near EPA’s restrictive reference dose.

Another important fact often overlooked is that not all mercury is created equal. There are many different forms of mercury, and the risk of harm to the public is from a specific form known as methylmercury. Coal-fired power plants don’t emit methylmercury. Mercury undergoes a complex transformation process in water bodies that produce methylmercury. It is this form of mercury that in very large doses has been found to negatively affect individuals.

The United States has drastically reduced mercury usage and emissions since 1990, including an approximately 38 percent decrease in emissions from coal-fired power plants. Our nation’s air is cleaner than it’s ever been.

Continuing this progress, the EPA under the Bush administration issued the first-ever regulation for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants last month. The EPA’s regulation, a cap and trade approach, reduces mercury emissions in several stages and allows plants the flexibility to meet the requirements without unnecessary economic burden to the consumer. Plants unable to currently reduce emissions are able to buy credits from those who have successfully reduced their emissions.

This is critical, as technology for reducing mercury emissions from all of the nation’s 1,032 coal-fired power plants is not currently available.

Despite allegations to the contrary, mercury emission reductions of 90 percent are not currently possible for all coal types.

Simply put, based on the current science of mercury, the EPA’s rulemaking is a responsible step toward reducing mercury emissions from our nation’s power plants while protecting public health and ensuring energy prices are not needlessly driven even higher.

Most troubling is the consequence the American public is paying for politically driven environmental agendas. Americans on average consume far less seafood products than other countries around the world. The benefits of fish consumption are certainly well-documented in decades of scientific literature. It helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, high blood pressure and more.

Most importantly, fish consumption is vital for infant development, specifically cognitive and mental development. Countries with high fish consumption levels have been consistently outperforming American children in educational achievement. For instance, 87 percent of Japanese women are above EPA’s reference dose. However, Japanese children consistently outperform American children. If the hype and scares were true, where are all the “permanently brain damaged” children?

Science is a continuous process of discovery and fact-finding. The federal government’s responsibility to protect the health of the public and our environment must be closely intertwined in that process.

The most recent rulemaking from EPA on mercury correctly addressed mercury emissions in a responsible way based upon the most current science and information available to policymakers.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Resources Committee.