America Leads on Major Human Health Victory: Curbing Mercury Pollution

Over the past year, I have noticed a disturbing trend. More and more people approach me to say that they or someone they love has dangerously high levels of mercury in their system. When actor Jeremy Piven recently bowed out of a Broadway play due to mercury poisoning, the media responded with skepticism. But the truth remains that too many people are at risk from this preventable health hazard.

Last week, the Obama administration took action to help reverse this trend. At international UN negotiations in Nairobi, American representatives threw their support behind an agreement to reduce global mercury pollution.

This in turn prompted China and India to back the treaty, and as a result, more than 140 countries signed on to begin negotiating a legally binding effort that will restrict the international mercury trade, control emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants and other sources, and phase out the use of mercury in products and industry.

This was a bold reversal of U.S. policy. For six year, the Bush administration blocked international efforts to cut mercury. But President Obama was an early leader in the fight to curb mercury pollution. Several years ago, he read a newspaper article about this dangerous neurotoxin, and like parents everywhere, he was concerned about exposing his children to unsafe chemicals.

  • Mercury travels through air and water thousands of miles from its original source.
  • Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury air pollution, emitting 50 tons of mercury pollution every year in the U.S. alone.
  • Mercury accumulates in large predatory fish, and poisons people mainly through the consumption of contaminated fish, including tuna.
  • It is especially dangerous for pregnant women, babies and small children, as it can gravely impede brain development.
  • The EPA estimates that every year hundreds of thousands of American newborns are at risk for problems with fine motor skills and learning difficulties as a result of their mothers' fish consumption during pregnancy.
  • Emerging research also links mercury exposure with cardiovascular disease in adult men.

As a senator, Obama decided to sponsor a bill to ban U.S. exports of mercury. It garnered bipartisan support and was signed into law last year by then President George W. Bush. Yet because mercury is traded on a global market and its pollution can travel thousands of miles, the new U.S. law was only a first step

The commitment America helped secure in Nairobi is the critical follow up. It will substantially reduce mercury contamination in fish, prevent mercury poisoning in our water, and shield our children from this dangerous chemical. It is truly a momentous human health victory in our battle to make mercury poisoning a thing of the past.