Bush Mercury Policy Threatens the Health of Women and Children

The Bush administration recently took several actions addressing mercury pollution that will fail to protect the public from this potent neurotoxin. On December 11, the Food and Drug Administration asked an advisory committee to approve an inadequate dietary advisory for eating mercury-contaminated fish. FDA is expected to release the final fish-consumption advisory with no significant revisions. On December 19, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a weak rule regulating how chlorine plants handle mercury, acknowledging that it cannot account for at least 65 tons of the chemical the plants may be emitting every year, and eliminated previous pollution control requirements. And in late January, the EPA issued a proposed rule that would weaken and delay efforts to clean up mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Like lead, mercury threatens the brain and nervous system. Mercury exposure can lead to neurological diseases and such developmental problems as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and mental retardation. The effects of prenatal and infant mercury exposure include the inability to recall and process information, and impaired visual and fine motor skills.1 Mercury exposure also can affect an adult's nervous system, causing nerve cell death and scarring in select areas of the brain.2

Women and children are at most risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA. One in six women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus.3 4 Thus, some 630,000 newborns are threatened every year by neurological impairment from exposure in-utero. Infants and children also are endangered because their developing brains are extremely sensitive to mercury, which they can ingest from breast milk and contaminated fish. 5 Meanwhile, elevated mercury levels in adults can adversely affect fertility, blood pressure regulation, and may contribute to heart-rate variability and heart disease.6 7

Mercury Emissions Contaminate Fish

Americans are primarily exposed to mercury by eating certain fish. Industrial facilities emit the chemical into the environment, and a particularly dangerous form of it -- methylmercury -- accumulates in the tissue of large predator fish, such as shark, swordfish and tuna.

Mercury pollution has contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries and wetlands -- 30 percent of the national total -- and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers and coastlines. Last year, 44 states issued warnings about eating mercury-contaminated fish, a 63 percent jump from 1993, when 27 states issued such warnings. Nineteen states have issued statewide advisories for mercury in freshwater lakes and rivers, and 10 states have issued advisories for canned tuna.8

In January, the FDA unveiled a new draft advisory warning the public about eating mercury-contaminated fish. The proposal, however, fails to provide specific advice about some of the most highly contaminated fish. For example, it does not mention grouper and orange roughy, two popular fish dinner entrees. It also does not mention the risks of eating tuna, specifically canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks, which contain higher mercury concentrations than canned light tuna.

FDA's proposed advisory states that adults can safely eat as much as 12 ounces of a variety of fish per week, without acknowledging that there are combinations of fish types that consumers cannot safely eat together. It also does not provide specific advice for parents with young children. The advisory states that children should eat less than 12 ounces of fish a week, but does not specify how much less. Based on FDA data, a 22-pound toddler who eats 2 ounces (one-third of a 6-ounce can) of albacore tuna a week would ingest nearly three times the EPA's safe level, and an 88-pound child eating 6 ounces would be exposed to twice EPA's safe level. NRDC criticized the FDA when it announced the proposal, charging that it is providing advice that is of no real use to parents and other consumers. (Click here for more information.)

Sources of Mercury Pollution

The major sources of mercury pollution are chlorine -- or chlor-alkali -- chemical plants, coal-fired power plants, and iron and steel plants that recycle automobile parts. Experts estimate that chlorine plants might emit as much as 100 tons of mercury a year.9 Coal-fired power plants emit 48 tons of mercury every year.10 Light switches in automobiles often contain mercury, which is released when cars are melted for recycling at iron and steel plants. This process emits 10 to 12 tons of mercury into the air annually.11

Not Accounting for the Chlorine Industry's "Lost" Mercury: There are only nine mercury chlorine plants in the United States that still use outdated mercury technology. These plants use 50-foot long vats, called "cells," that contain thousands of pounds of mercury. Each plant typically has 56 cells, each holding 8,000 pounds of mercury, which they use to conduct an electrical charge to extract chlorine from salt. The process produces chlorine gas and caustic soda, which is used in soaps and detergents. At any given time each plant has an average of 300 tons of mercury on site, and collectively they use as much as 100 tons of mercury annually to replenish the amount lost in the manufacturing process. They cannot account for where the "lost" mercury goes.

The EPA cannot account for the missing mercury, either. When the agency issued its new rule regulating chlorine plants' handling of mercury, it concluded, "The fate of all the mercury consumed at mercury cell chlor-alkali plants remains somewhat of an enigma."12

Not only did the agency fail to investigate what happens to the lost mercury, it rolled back previous pollution control requirements. The agency argued that it is not feasible to measure mercury emissions from chlorine plants because the evaporating mercury escapes through open doors and vents in the ceiling, not through a smokestack. But an EPA regulation established in 1975 specified that chlorine plants could measure their emissions by routing evaporated mercury to smokestacks, and required them to keep their mercury emissions below 2,300 grams per day. The new EPA rule eliminates this requirement, allowing the plants to emit unlimited amounts of mercury.

In mid-February, NRDC and the Sierra Club sued the EPA for failing to address lost mercury pollution from the plants and eliminating pollution control requirements (Click here for more information).

Allowing More Mercury Pollution for a Longer Time: The EPA also has proposed to weaken and delay efforts to clean up mercury emissions from roughly 1,100 coal-fired boilers at more than 460 electric power plants, the largest unregulated source of mercury. At the end of January, when the agency was forced to issue its final plan to control power plant mercury pollution by an NRDC lawsuit, it issued a feeble proposal that would allow coal-fired power plants to emit seven times more mercury than allowed by current law for at least 15 more years.

Essentially, EPA's plan treats mercury as if it were a run-of-the-mill air pollutant instead of a hazardous air pollutant, allowing the agency to avoid requiring power plants to reduce emissions using "maximum achievable control technology."13 During the Clinton administration, EPA experts determined that requiring coal-fired power plants to install technology to achieve the maximum achievable reductions would cut mercury pollution by 90 percent within three years -- from nearly 50 tons to 5 tons annually.14

None of the three alternatives EPA is proposing now for regulating mercury would achieve the reductions required by Clean Air Act for a hazardous air pollutant. In fact, the agency's preferred alternative would require only a 30 percent emissions reduction over 15 years and allow some plants to avoid controls entirely by buying and banking pollution "credits" from cleaner plants.15

Giving Most Iron and Steel Plants a Free Pass: Finally, last September EPA issued a new rule requiring only 10 percent of the nation's iron and steel plants to ensure their scrap metal is free of mercury switches.16 By simply ensuring that mercury switches are removed from cars before they are scrapped, the iron and steel industry could eliminate a substantial source of mercury.

We Can Cut Mercury Pollution Now

The technology exists today to drastically reduce the amount of mercury in our environment. What is missing is the political will.

Ninety percent of the facilities currently producing chlorine and caustic soda use mercury-free technology. Only nine plants still use the antiquated, dangerous mercury-based process. The EPA is shirking its responsibility to regulate these plants, which might be emitting as much as twice the amount of all the coal-fired power plants in the nation. NRDC urges the federal government to require the nine plants to switch to newer, cleaner technology and, if necessary, offer them incentives to do so.

Likewise, the EPA must aggressively address mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. Its new proposal likely violates the Clean Air Act, which calls for maximum achievable control technology (MACT) for hazardous pollutants. The EPA must reconsider its proposed "cap and trade" program, which would allow power plants to pay to pollute and continue to release dangerous amounts of toxic mercury into the environment.

Finally, the federal government must warn consumers about mercury in fish. NRDC has asked the FDA to set a safe upper limit for consuming each species of mercury-contaminated fish, including tuna. NRDC also recommends that the agency require supermarkets and fish markets to post clearly written advisories in their stores to inform the public about which fish are safe to eat and in what quantities.