Mercurial Mistakes

We cannot allow politics to get in the way of public health

Sophie Gonick

Now I’m not a fanatic environmentalist by any means, but some basic consideration for the health of the environment—and more importantly, our own—is clearly warranted. What puzzles me, however, is that the coal-burning power industry seems to disagree.

Evidence shows that contamination from mercury is extremely dangerous. Mercury poisoning can cause severe neurological and developmental damage as it affects the way information is processed by the brain—sensory perception in particular. Moreover, this type of poisoning is especially harmful to children and pregnant women yet, sadly, such a danger is not far removed.

Mercury pollution can easily enter the food web and infect what we eat. By tainting our rivers and marine life, the bio-accumulative substance directly threatens public health. In fact, 41 states currently have fish-consumption advisories due to mercury poisoning. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood exceeding levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—clearly some unsettling statistics.

Yet, it seems that the EPA is willing to do some backpedaling. Recently, the agency caved into industry lobbies and weakened previously-set regulatory policies. In a document released by the government late last year, the EPA decided to revise its December 2000 findings (in which it placed mercury under the most stringent regulations of the Clean Air Act alongside other neurotoxins such as asbestos, chromium and lead) to place mercury under a significantly less stringent provision of the Act which deals with pollutants less toxic to humans, such as smog.

The revision came about as a result of intense pressure from the coal-burning power industry, whose concern for cost and profit has led to fierce resistance to the regulations. But, it’s none other than coal-burning power plants that serve as the largest providers of unregulated airborne mercury pollution. Pumping out about 48 tons per year, these plants obviously pose a huge hazard to our health yet are receiving unduly lenient treatment.


The thing is, this is not even about environmental health. This is about human health. Yet it appears that those who stand to benefit from the new lenience see public health worth trading for profits.

Mercury cannot be treated as benign as smog. It is a very dangerous pollutant and, as research has shown, belongs in the category of neurotoxins. The Bush administration’s weakened regulations may save the power industry hundreds of millions of dollars—yet another instance of its characteristically lax laws with regard to big industry—but they won’t be able to address the real harm quickly enough. Without requiring across-the-board regulation, there will still be mercury build-up and concentrated areas of pollution; the substance will continue to taint our waters and affect our population.

Pharmaceutical companies have stopped using mercury-based preservative for vaccines. Hospitals and doctors’ offices are replacing mercury-based blood pressure gauges with alternative instruments. And one state, Connecticut, is taking the lead in initiating a ban on mercury-based thermometers. At a time when mercury is being phased out from its other uses, we cannot allow the 1,100 coal- and oil- fired power plants—the largest source of mercury pollution—to simply slide by.

Saritha Komatireddy '05, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.