Mercury rising

Millions of fetuses whose mothers eat fish are being exposed to brain-damaging mercury. But critics charge the Bush administration's regulations are like bailing the ocean with a thimble.

Published April 18, 2005 10:48PM (EDT)

When children in Dr. Kevin Browngoehl's practice suffer from learning disabilities or attention problems, the pediatrician wonders whether methylmercury in the fish their mothers ate before they were born is to blame. "Once the damage has been done, it appears to be a permanent thing. It's something I can't do much about as a doctor," says Browngoehl, who practices in Drexel Hill, Penn.

Browngoehl explains that mercury travels through a mother's bloodstream, "goes through the placenta, and is concentrated in the brain of the fetus." What's so insidious about the neurotoxin, he says, is that it's likely to present no symptoms in a pregnant woman as it attacks fetal brain cells.

"The mercury is damaging and killing the cells as they're trying to develop areas of the brain that deal with attention and memory," Browngoehl says. "You have a nerve poison being introduced during a critical time of the development of the brain."

Browngoehl's remarks are backed by several alarming studies of mercury in the past decade. One study, sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Europe's Environment and Climate Research Program, showed that children exposed to mercury in utero did poorly on tests measuring their attention span, memory and speaking abilities. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, both the brains and nervous systems of children who have been exposed to mercury can be damaged. Their language and visual spatial skills can also suffer.

"Children who suffer the consequences of methylmercury toxicity often appear like other children who may have been affected for a genetic reason," explains Leo Trasande, the assistant director of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Center for Children's Health and the Environment in New York. "A child with mental retardation may have had a significant environmental exposure in the perinatal period. But there are no hallmarks." One study found that an affected child could score lower on IQ tests by as little as .20 of a point to as much as 24 points.

The mercury studies are behind the EPA's advisory to moms and would-be moms to avoid eating the most mercury-laden fish, such as swordfish and shark. And to go easy on the tuna. But even with those warnings in place, the agency estimated that as many as 600,000 newborns are being exposed each year. That's 15 percent of the 4 million babies born in the United States each year.

While the Bush administration cajoles women to follow its fish warnings, it's proved unwilling to take on the root of the problem. Fish, after all, are only the pathway of mercury to our bloodstreams. Coal-fired power plants, in the United States and abroad, are the largest source of man-made mercury pollution. But Bush and company stand in the way of international efforts to prevent mercury pollution and are doing little the stop it at home.

Just last month, the EPA adopted new regulations to curb power plants' emissions of mercury pollution. It heralded its new rules as the very first time that such pollution has been regulated from coal-fired power plants. But environmentalists and health officials view the new rule, which includes a pollution trading scheme, as unlikely to make much difference in mercury pollution for more than a decade. "Essentially, the agency adopted a do-nothing approach to mercury for the next 12 years," said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean-air program.

Browngoehl compares mercury poisoning to another heavy-metal neurotoxin that once haunted the country: lead. Once common in paint and gasoline, lead poisoned kids and caused lower IQ scores. Mercury is the new lead, he points out, with one crucial difference -- there's a lack of political will to do anything about it. "We didn't say, 'OK, don't eat the paint and don't breathe the air,'" Browngoehl says. "We got the lead out of paint and gasoline. And we still have paint and gasoline. It was a struggle, but people had the political will to do it. People have to decide that this is worth the health of children."

While the Bush administration stalls on mercury at home, global mercury pollution is expected to rise. China, already believed to be the world's largest producer of man-made mercury emissions, where three-quarters of the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, will double its electricity-generating capacity by 2020, according to that country's State Power Economic Research Center. Most of those new plants will be coal-fired.

The mercury in fish is actually worse for people than when it leaves the power plant. When coal is burned, mercury is released into the atmosphere as a gas, which turns into aerosol droplets as it cools. Airborne, these droplets can travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, before settling to the ground, where they're eventually washed to the bottom of lakes, rivers and streams.

The bacteria in the sediment at the bottom of the water have a chemical reaction to the mercury, which makes the substance less toxic to the bacteria. But that chemical process also turns it into a form that is most toxic for people: methylmercury. As worms and other organisms in the sediment consume the bacteria, they absorb this methylmercury and pass it on to the critters that eat them. The methylmercury becomes concentrated as it travels up the food chain -- with little fish being eaten by bigger fish -- until it ends up in high doses in the large sports fish that Americans have such a taste for.

And mercury pollution knows no boundaries. Rainwater in California has been found to contain mercury pollution from as far away as Asia. Moreover, our seafood supply is global: The sea bass you eat in New York or Austin could have come from waters literally half a world away.

The Bush administration, however, has strenuously fought international efforts to curb the pollutant. Just last February, in a meeting in Nairobi, it battled the establishment of international mercury rules, arguing that any reductions should be voluntary.

It adds up to conflicting messages from the EPA on mercury. The agency issues dire warnings about the hundreds of thousands of children potentially exposed every year, warns women against eating the most mercury-laden fish, but then fails to regulate the pollution that's causing the problem.

Those failures come just as some women are starting to get tested before they start a family. Alisa MacDonnell, 34, of Montara, Calif., recently participated in the hair-testing program organized by Greenpeace. What MacDonnell found out made her swear off her beloved spicy tuna roll. Her result came back 1.75 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair, 0.75 over the limit recommended by the EPA. "I went completely cold because I was so petrified," she says. Six months later, after giving up fish, her level has gone down 46 percent, to 0.94 micrograms. "Then it was really clear to me that it had something to do with my eating fish."

The cost of not cleaning up mercury pollution in our environment is not just lost sales for the tuna industry, which has been grumbling that sales are down because of concerns about the toxin. A new study from Mount Sinai, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, of which Trasande is the lead researcher, states that the economic fallout of mercury pollution is nearly $9 billion a year. The study calculates the economic cost of the hundreds of thousands of kids likely to be brain damaged by mercury.

"That's our best estimate of the economic impact of methylmercury toxicity from man-made sources," Trasande says. "The cost will occur in each year's birth cohort. Hundreds of thousands of children each year will continue to suffer this level of brain damage, costing Americans billions of dollars each year if mercury pollution is allowed to continue at this level. On each of these children, methylmercury has a permanent impact that lasts a lifetime. These children enter school with lower IQ, and they don't perform as well."

The doctors based their economic estimates on children who have suffered from lead poisoning, a neurotoxin that has been studied for decades. In those studies, researchers found that even a 1.6 drop in an IQ score could cost that person $31,800 in earnings over a lifetime. They discovered that adults who suffered from lead poisoning as children were at a persistent economic disadvantage to their peers. The Mount Sinai study found that the U.S. coal-fired power-plant industry is responsible for foisting $1.3 billion of the $8.7 annual cost of mercury on all of us. Industry sources dispute the figure.

But a billion here or there doesn't make much difference. The EPA had the final word on mercury poisoning last month, when it released its new mercury regulations after receiving nearly 700,000 public comments on its proposed rule.

Before the rule came out, the inspector general of the EPA, the agency's watchdog, had called the process of creating it tainted by politics to suit Bush's free-market ideology. And the government's nonpartisan Government Accountability Office had diagnosed a similar distortion of science in the process to favor Bush's market-based approach. And just weeks before the rule came out, 28 senators sent a letter to the EPA, begging it to take stronger action than what it had proposed.

None of this meant anything when the agency came out with a rule that was even weaker. "This is just another example of a politicized process," says Olivia Campbell, the national campaign coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. "The administration has put the polluters before the health of people and wildlife again. They just don't listen to people or scientists or even the states."

The rule calls for mercury pollution from power plants to be reduced 29 percent from 2005 levels by 2010, and 70 percent by 2018. But it also introduces a so-called cap-and-trade program, which will allow power plants to earn credits for larger reductions they make earlier. They can sell these credits to other polluters or bank them for later use. In the proposed rule, the cap on mercury in 2010 was 34 tons. In the final rule, the power plants can continue to emit 38 tons of mercury until 2010.

Critics argue that a toxin like mercury has never been subject to such a trading scheme before, and they worry that it will create "hot spots" of mercury pollution around the country, as some plants buy credits instead of cleaning up. "The EPA has never before allowed trading for a toxic pollutant," Campbell says. "And with good reason -- the Clean Air Act doesn't allow for trading of a toxic pollutant." Ten states, including New Jersey, Maine and California, are suing the federal government over the new mercury rules, arguing they don't meet the standards of the Clean Air Act.

State regulators fear that areas where polluters buy credits instead of cleaning up will continue to suffer more mercury pollution as well as the toxic fallout from it. Some 44 states in the United States have issued fish advisories about seafood caught in local waters because of mercury pollution.

Critics also argue that since plants can "bank" credits, they can reduce emissions earlier and earn credits to spend later on. So a "cap" isn't what it sounds like: Emissions won't be reduced 70 percent by 2018, they predict, and will probably fall short of that for years to come.

"EPA's own models show that due to this trading scheme, plants are not going to reach their 70 percent reduction until well beyond 2025," Campbell says.

A rule proposed during the Clinton era called for a 90 percent reduction of mercury by 2008. Environmental groups maintain that the Bush administration is legally obligated to meet that reduction level under the Clean Air Act. "The administration is using this as cover to adopt a 20-year delayed cleanup program requiring very weak pollution cuts," says Walke from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For its part, the EPA maintains that even if it eliminated all the mercury pollution from U.S. power plants, it still wouldn't clean up the fish that Americans eat, since the fish supply is so global. "Airborne mercury knows no boundaries; it is a global problem," said acting administrator Steve Johnson in a statement. "Until global mercury emissions can be reduced -- and more importantly, until mercury concentrations in fish caught and sold globally are reduced -- it is very important for women of child-bearing age to pay attention to the advisory issued by EPA and FDA, avoiding certain types of fish and limiting their consumption of other types of fish."

So, for the moment, fish eaters will just have to fend for themselves.

Karen Perry, deputy director of the environmental health department at Physicians for Social Responsibility, has this advice: "For women who are of child-bearing age, we would advise they learn more about which fish are the cleanest and the safest and continue to eat fish in moderation and choose the lowest-mercury fish. The sad part of all of this is that fish is such a healthy food, we don't want to tell people not to eat it. So you have to give them more information, so they can make the best choices."

But even this type of "throw up your hands and save yourself" advice doesn't sit well with physicians who know that such recomendations alone won't solve the larger public health issue of what mercury is doing to kids. "It's important to advise families about high mercury levels in fish, but it's unconscionable to not reduce mercury levels in fish," says Trasande from Mount Sinai. "Otherwise, we'll be allowing mercury to poison a generation of our nation's children."

"Think of another disease that you could prevent that affects 600,000 patients in the U.S. a year," says Dr. Browngoehl. "Talk about No Child Left Behind! If you don't want to leave them behind, get the mercury out."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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