Protect Kids from Toxic Pollution? The States Get It. Will Congress?

Recently we’ve been treated to claims by polluter apologists that the US Environmental Protection Agency has exaggerated the health threat posed by mercury, well-known as a brain poison that wreaks the greatest damage on unborn and young children, who face life-long learning disorders and other disabilities when exposed to too much mercury.

But companies like American Electric Power  and members of Congress like Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield want to delay clean air updates that would reduce mercury pollution from the nation’s coal plants, citing cost as a concern. Power plants are the single biggest source of airborne mercury pollution in the US.

Hopefully members know enough – or will learn enough from opportunities like today’s Senate Committee hearing on the vulnerability of children to air pollution, to resist such pleas from polluters and their pals.

Putting off the reduction of mercury and other toxic pollution will condemn thousands of Americans – including children – to the harmful effects of these contaminants. For example, hundreds of thousands of children are born each year already exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury. In 2005, researchers using Centers for Disease Control data found that “between 316,588 and 637,233 children each year have cord blood mercury levels [higher than the] level[s] associated with loss of IQ.”

That’s a lot of babies being born with a handicap inherently connected to quality of life, earning power, potential to contribute new ideas and innovations to society and economy. There is no way to accurately characterize the costs – personal, social, economic – of hundreds of thousands of children starting off their lives with an intelligence deficit.

But there is a way to do something about the problem: Make your voice heard by submitting comments in support of the EPA’s plans to protect children from dangerous air pollution.

As for the claim that the EPA is overstating the risks of mercury: balderdash.  Groups like American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Nurses Association (ANA), American Public Health Association (APHA) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) sued the EPA three years because its proposals back then weren’t strong enough to protect Americans and their children.  

And, every single state recognizes mercury as a dangerous health threat, according to our review of the web pages of the health and environmental protection agencies of all fifty states.

View a table of our findings for each state here.

Interestingly, 35 states identify coal-fired power plants as a leading culprit, and 43 name coal-fired power plants, power plants, industries or fuels as primary sources of mercury.

 Here’s a sample of what some states have to say about mercury:

Ohio: “Over 40 percent of anthropogenic mercury released into the atmosphere is from the generation of electricity through coal burning utilities. Ohio has many of coal burning for energy production utilities.   ...Mercury is a potent acute neurotoxin that affects many organs (e.g. kidney, liver). The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury.”


Michigan: “It is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxic pollutant and exists in several different forms which can impact individuals through various routes of exposure.  Human and industrial activities, including those that use mercury directly or burn mercury bearing fossil fuels like coal, have increased the amount of mercury deposited in the environment . . . Studies indicate an increased risk to a developing fetus upon exposure to methylmercury via maternal fish consumption.”


Minnesota: “Most of the mercury in the environment originates from human activities, including burning coal to produce electricity, processing taconite, and using mercury in products, such as fluorescent lights, dental fillings, and some types of thermostats and switches.  ...It’s the methylmercury in these fish that poses the greatest threat to human health. Fetuses, nursing infants, children under age 15, and people who rely on fish for much of their diet are most at risk from methylmercury, which can hamper normal development of the central nervous system. In adults, exposure to methylmercury can result in damage to the nervous system and organs.”


Pennsylvania: “Mercury is a persistent, bio-accumulative neurotoxin that can remain active in the environment for more than 10,000 years. It endangers pregnant women, the unborn, young children and other vulnerable populations. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists report that more than one child in six born in the United States could be at risk of having developmental disorders as a result of mercury exposure in the mother’s womb.”


Illinois: “Mercury poses a health risk to everybody, but especially to young children and fetuses because they are still developing. Prolonged, low level exposure may cause learning disabilities by hurting the ability of children to think and read. Adults who have been exposed to high levels of mercury may experience trembling hands and numbness or tingling in their lips, tongues, fingers and toes. Acute mercury poisoning, especially through ingestion, can damage the brain, liver, kidneys and even cause death.”


Massachusetts: “Mercury is viewed by many public health experts, scientists and regulators both in Massachusetts and across the nation as a significant environmental issue. Organic forms of this heavy metal, such as methyl mercury, are particularly toxic and of special concern because they can "bioaccumulate" or build up in concentration over time in living organisms, such as fish. Pregnant women who eat contaminated fish can pass mercury to their unborn children, who are very sensitive to its toxic effects.  ...Combustion of fossil fuels, including oil and coal, generated approximately 3,223 total pounds of mercury emissions in Massachusetts in 1995. Both oil and coal contain naturally-occurring mercury that is volatilized during combustion and is emitted in flue gases.”


Maine: “Large amounts of mercury also become airborne through manmade processes such as burning coal, oil, wood, or natural gas as fuel, incinerating mercury-containing garbage, and through industrial production processes that utilize mercury. Once in the air, mercury can fall to the ground with rain and snow, contaminating soils and water bodies. Once mercury is released into the environment it can change to methylmercury, a highly toxic compound. Methylmercury is easily taken up in living tissue and bioaccumulates (builds up) over time, causing serious health effects such as neurological and reproductive disorders in humans and wildlife.”