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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reining in Mercury

Air Date: Week of

As the U.S. nears its first regulations to control mercury from power plants, critics are questioning whether the rule will do enough to protect children from the pollutant. A new study says mercury pollution lowers IQ for hundreds of thousands of children and costs the U.S. economy billions each year. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Mad as a hatter. Years ago mercury was used to stiffen fur in hat making, but it also got into the nervous systems of hatters and made many of them act crazy. Now in the face of evidence that even small amounts of the metal are harmful, the Bush administration is getting close to regulating mercury emissions from power plants. Trace amounts in coal go from smokestacks into the air, into water and into the human food chain, often through fish. Developing babies are especially vulnerable. A rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency would gradually reduce mercury pollution over the coming ten to 15 years. A bill pending in Congress, called Clear Skies, would largely do the same.

But, critics say both measures come up short when it comes to adequately protecting the health of children. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: Researchers at the Mount Sinai Center for Children's Health and the Environment in New York City wanted to know more about what life will be like for children born to mothers who've accumulated mercury in their bodies. Their study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found mercury impairs cognitive ability in 300 to 600,000 American children born each year. Study co-author and pediatrician Leonardo Trasande says high mercury means lower IQ.

TRASANDE: These are children for whom their native intelligence is knocked down a bit and they're less sharp in school. The really smart are slightly duller and don't perform well in school.

YOUNG: Trasande's work is the first peer-reviewed medical study to measure the extent of IQ loss due to mercury. His study also looked beyond learning to earning, putting a price tag on the lost job opportunities that result from that lowered IQ.

TRASANDE: This cognitive impact resulting from mercury pollution has a significant impact on the economic productivity of our nation, which is at least 2.2 and possibly as high as 43.8 billion dollars each year.

YOUNG: The broad range comes from the many variables Trasande had to consider. His best guess is a mercury-induced loss of 8.7 billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year. Scientists employed by the electric industry disagree. Michael Miller is environment director for the Electric Power Research Institute.

MILLER: Well, heh, we've got some major reservations about that study.

YOUNG: Miller questions the link between mercury exposure and IQ loss and says the study overstates the role of power plant emissions of mercury. He says most mercury in the U.S. comes from natural sources like forest fires or blows in from industry elsewhere around the world. Trasande stands by the Mount Sinai study and it's caught the attention of a committee advising the Environmental Protection Agency on children's health issues. Committee member John Balbus is health director for the advocacy group Environmental Defense. Balbus says the Mount Sinai study addresses the very questions the committee had been asking EPA.

BALBUS: It raises the question why it took an academic outside the agency to do it when we've been asking the agency to do this kind of thing for over a year.

YOUNG: Balbus says the advisory committee has long questioned the EPA's mercury proposal. Instead of forcing power plants to install the best technology to control mercury, the EPA proposal calls for a cap and trade approach. It would reduce overall mercury emissions by about 30 percent by the year 2012, then 70 percent six years later. Power companies could buy and sell mercury emissions credits to meet those targets. Balbus says the advisory committee sent four letters to EPA questioning whether the proposed rule would make mercury cuts fast enough or deep enough.

BALBUS: And so we asked to see proof that the rule that was being proposed was taking all these factors into account and was coming up with a solution that was best for children's health. That's the kind of analysis we were looking for and unfortunately, I don't think that's the kind of analysis that we ever got.

YOUNG: Some career scientists within EPA raised similar questions about the mercury rule, how it was put together and what it would achieve. Milt Clark is an EPA health and science advisor. He says he can't speak for the agency, but as a scientist, Clark says he does not see how the EPA's proposal will get mercury out of rivers, lakes, fish and people.

CLARK: And the 30 percent has to really be compared with the fact that there would be a potential of several, well, we want to be very clear here, over a million children that would be born above acceptable levels.

YOUNG: A report last month by the EPA's own inspector general echoed those complaints. The report said the agency ignored scientific evidence to set modest mercury limits that would agree with the Bush administration's cap and trade approach in its Clear Skies legislation. Instead of conducting since to determine a mercury limit, the IG report says, the agency worked backwards to justify a predetermined goal. EPA officials declined to grant an interview for this story. In a written response to the Inspector General report, an official called it flawed and inaccurate and said the inspector general had—quote "characterized the process as incomplete before the process has even finished" –end quote. Before the agency completes the mercury rule, Mount Sinai's Dr. Trasande says he hopes EPA will think about the public health costs his study points out.

TRASANDE: It's also unconscionable not to go after the primary problem, which is mercury pollution from manmade sources such as power plants.

YOUNG: EPA faces a March 15 deadline to make its mercury rule final. A committee vote on the Clear Skies legislation is set for March 9th. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: "The Pearly Eyed March" Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Dancing on A'A (Cuneiform) 1995]



Mount Sinai Center for Children's Health and the Environment


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